Neural shifts in alpha rhythm's dual functioning during empathy

Niloufar Zebarjadi, Jonathan Levy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Introduction: Alpha oscillations are unique in their capacity to relay neuronal information through a dual-process named “gating by inhibition”: rhythmic enhancement inhibits task-irrelevant regions while rhythmic suppression engages task-relevant regions in the brain. A social-cognitive process that operates by relying on the suppression of the alpha rhythm in the primary somatosensory cortex (S1) is the ability to generate empathy. This phenomenon has been evidenced in dozens of electrophysiological studies targeting adult human subjects. Yet, recent studies on the neurodevelopment of empathy indicate that in younger age, empathy does not involve alpha suppression in S1 but only enhancement. More interestingly, right before adulthood, this rhythm is still enhanced, but in a remarkable shift, a pattern of suppression emerges. In this registered magnetoencephalography (MEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study, we will capture frequency-decomposed neural activity particularly at the alpha range and its corresponding hemodynamic response and target subjects at around 20 years old as a unique time-window in development that allows investigating in parallel both low-alpha suppression and high-alpha enhancement. We aim to address two questions: (a) Does alpha power suppression in the S1 region during empathy correspond to BOLD increase in this region? (b) What is the functional role of alpha power enhancement during empathy development (BOLD signal increase or decrease)? Addressing these questions will particularly advance knowledge on the process of empathy in the brain, and the way in which it is underpinned by alpha oscillations. Moreover, examining these experimental outcomes can potentially lay the ground for future studies that would further examine the role of alpha oscillations in empathy during the course of development. Methods: Brain data of forty healthy individuals close to 20 years old will be recorded in two consecutive MEG and fMRI sessions while subjects observing physical pain versus neutral stimuli. Besides, each participant's subjective experiences wll be measred by questionnaires, interviews and rating of the stimuli.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2355
JournalBrain and Behavior
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2021
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Authors. Brain and Behavior published by Wiley Periodicals LLC


  • Alpha rhythm
  • MEG
  • Pain empathy
  • Social neuroscience
  • development
  • fMRI


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