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Brain Scans Show Doctors Empathize With Patients

Regions associated with pain relief and reward activated

Brain Scans Show Doctors Empathize With Patients

TUESDAY, Jan. 29 (HealthDay News) -- Physicians who empathize with a patient in pain and feel relief when the patient receives effective treatment show activity in brain regions associated with pain relief and reward, according to a study published online Jan. 29 in Molecular Psychiatry.

Karin B. Jensen, Ph.D., from Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, and colleagues performed functional magnetic resonance imaging on 18 physicians while they treated an actor pretending to be a patient in pain. The physicians were presented with three conditions based on whether they could administer an analgesic, and after each condition were asked how they felt.

The researchers found that the physician's ability to empathize with the patient was associated with activity in the right ventrolateral and dorsolateral prefrontal cortices, which are associated with pain relief. There was also activity in the rostral anterior cingulate cortex, which is associated with reward.

"By demonstrating that caring for patients involves a complex set of brain events, including deep understanding of the patient's facial and body expressions, possibly in combination with the physician's own expectations of relief and feelings of reward, we have been able to elucidate the neurobiology underlying caregiving," a coauthor said in a statement. "Our findings provide early evidence of the importance of interacting brain networks between patients and caregivers and acknowledge the doctor/patient relationship as a valued component of health care, alongside medications and procedures."

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