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A dual-brain approach for understanding the neuralmechanisms that underlie the comforting effects of social touch.

  • Author(s): Korisky, Adi;
  • Eisenberger, Naomi I;
  • Nevat, Michael;
  • Weissman-Fogel, Irit;
  • Shamay-Tsoory, Simone G
  • et al.

Across different cultures, social touch is used to alleviate distress. Here we adopt a dual-brain approach with fMRI to examine whether social touch involves similar activations between the suffering 'target' and the empathizer in brain regions related to emotional sharing such as the observation-execution (mirror) network. To inspect the neural underpinnings of the effects of social touch on pain, we scanned romantic couples during a task that required one partner (the empathizer) to hold the target's hand as the latter experienced painful thermal stimulation. Empathizers and target participants were scanned sequentially, in two counterbalanced phases. Results revealed that hand-holding reduced the pain of the target participant, compared to the severity of pain in a control condition (holding a rubber ball). Importantly, during social touch we found striking shared activations between the target and empathizer in the inferior parietal lobule (IPL), a region related to the observation-execution network. The brain-to-brain analysis further revealed a positive correlation of IPL activation levels between the target and the empathizer. Finally, psychophysiological interaction (PPI) analysis in the target showed that the IPL activity during social touch was positively coupled with activity in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, a region that has been implicated in emotion regulation, suggesting that the interaction between the observation-execution network and emotion regulation network may contribute to pain reduction during social touch.

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