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Well-integrated pain observers modulate aversive arousal through late top-down neural processes

Jeanna Bryner, Livescience.com

A social snub can deliver a seemingly painful blow. Now, it turns out that sting may be real. A gene linked with physical pain is also associated with a person’s sensitivity to rejection, a new study finds.

The discovery doesn’t suggest that being chosen last for a pick-up ball game, say, will send you limping off the field. Rather, a rare form of the so-called mu-opioid receptor gene (OPRM1) is likely involved in the emotional aspect of physical pain — essentially, how much a person is bothered by a throbbing leg, for instance.

In the study, 122 participants indicated how much they agreed or disagreed with statements, such as “I am very sensitive to any signs that a person might not want to talk to me.” Their saliva was also analyzed for OPRM1. (People with a rare form of OPRM1 experience more physical pain than others.)

Then, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of 31 of the participants during a virtual ball-tossing game. Initially, each participant was included with two virtual players before being excluded when the virtual players stopped throwing the ball to them.

Individuals with the rare OPRM1 variant were more sensitive to social rejection. The mutant-gene carriers also showed more activity in brain regions linked with physical and social pain, including the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and anterior insula.

Such social pain may have benefited our ancestors. “Because social connection is so important, feeling literally hurt by not having social connections may be an adaptive way to make sure we keep them,” said study researcher Naomi Eisenberger of UCLA.

She added, “Over the course of evolution, the social attachment system — which ensures social connection — may have actually borrowed some of the mechanisms of the pain system to maintain social connections.”

More here.

Nicolas Danziger, Isabelle Faillenot, and Roland Peyron.

Abstract
Theories of empathy differ regarding the relative contributions of automatic resonance and perspective taking in understanding others’ emotions. Patients with the rare syndrome of congenital insensitivity to pain cannot rely on ‘‘mirror matching’’ (i.e., resonance) mechanisms to understand the pain of others. Nevertheless, they showed normal fMRI responses to observed pain in anterior mid-cingulate cortex and anterior insula, two key regions of the so-called ‘‘shared circuits’’ for self and other pain. In these patients (but not in healthy controls), empathy trait predicted ventromedial prefrontal responses to somatosensory representations of others’ pain and posterior cingulate responses to emotional representations of others’ pain. These findings underline the major role of midline structures in emotional perspective taking and understanding someone else’s feeling despite the lack of any previous personal experience of it—an empathic challenge frequently raised during human social interactions.

Article here.