The neural development of empathy is sensitive to caregiving and early trauma

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Empathy is a core human social ability shaped by biological dispositions and caregiving experiences; yet the mechanisms sustaining maturation of the neural basis of empathy are unknown. Here, we followed eighty-four children, including 42 exposed to chronic war-related adversity, across the first decade of life, and assessed parenting, child temperament, and anxiety disorders as contributors to the neural development of empathy. At preadolescence, participants underwent magenetoencephalography while observing others’ distress. Preadolescents show a widely-distributed response in structures implicating the overlap of affective (automatic) and cognitive (higher-order) empathy, which is predicted by mother-child synchrony across childhood. Only temperamentally reactive young children growing in chronic adversity, particularly those who later develop anxiety disorders, display additional engagement of neural nodes possibly reflecting hyper-mentalizing and ruminations over the distressing stimuli. These findings demonstrate how caregiving patterns fostering interpersonal resonance, reactive temperament, and chronic adversity combine across early development to shape the human empathic brain.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1905
JournalNature Communications
Issue number1
StatePublished - 23 Apr 2019

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