Neural, physiological and behavioural correlates of empathy for pain in Tourette syndrome

Ronja Weiblen*, Carina Robert, Pauline Petereit, Marcus Heldmann, Thomas F. Münte, Alexander Münchau, Kirsten Müller-Vahl, Ulrike M. Krämer

*Corresponding author for this work

Abstract

Persons with Tourette syndrome show altered social behaviours, such as echophenomena and increased personal distress in emotional situations. These symptoms may reflect an overactive mirror neuron system, causing both increased automatic imitation and a stronger tendency to share others' emotions. To test this, we measured the individual level of echophenomena with a video protocol and experimentally induced empathy for pain in 21 participants with Tourette syndrome and 25 matched controls. In the empathy for pain paradigm, pictures of hands and feet in painful or neutral situations were presented, while we measured participants' EEG and skin conductance response. Changes in somatosensory mu suppression during the observation of the pictures and pain ratings were compared between groups, and correlations were calculated with the occurrence of echophenomena, self-reported empathy and clinical measures. Our Tourette syndrome sample showed significantly more echophenomena than controls, but the groups showed no behavioural differences in empathic abilities. However, controls, but not patients with Tourette syndrome, showed the predicted increased mu suppression when watching painful compared to neutral actions. While echophenomena were present in all persons with Tourette syndrome, the hypothesis of an overactive mirror neuron system in Tourette syndrome could not be substantiated. On the contrary, the Tourette syndrome group showed a noticeable lack of mu attenuation in response to pain stimuli. In conclusion, we found a first hint of altered processing of others' emotional states in a brain region associated with the mirror neuron system.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberfcad212
JournalBrain communications
Volume5
Issue number4
ISSN2632-1297
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2023

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