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Papers of the Week

Papers: 17 Jun 2023 - 23 Jun 2023

Clinical, Psychology, Social Aspects

Human Studies, Neurobiology


2023 Jun 27

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A




Editor's Pick

Brain-to-brain mechanisms underlying pain empathy and social modulation of pain in the patient-clinician interaction.


Ellingsen DM, Isenburg K, Jung C, Lee J, Gerber J, Mawla I, Sclocco R, Grahl A, Anzolin A, Edwards RR, Kelley JM, Kirsch I, Kaptchuk TJ, Napadow V


Social interactions such as the patient-clinician encounter can influence pain, but the underlying dynamic interbrain processes are unclear. Here, we investigated the dynamic brain processes supporting social modulation of pain by assessing simultaneous brain activity (fMRI hyperscanning) from chronic pain patients and clinicians during video-based live interaction. Patients received painful and nonpainful pressure stimuli either with a supportive clinician present (Dyadic) or in isolation (Solo). In half of the dyads, clinicians performed a clinical consultation and intake with the patient prior to hyperscanning (Clinical Interaction), which increased self-reported therapeutic alliance. For the other half, patient-clinician hyperscanning was completed without prior clinical interaction (No Interaction). Patients reported lower pain intensity in the Dyadic, relative to the Solo, condition. In Clinical Interaction dyads relative to No Interaction, patients evaluated their clinicians as better able to understand their pain, and clinicians were more accurate when estimating patients’ pain levels. In Clinical Interaction dyads, compared to No Interaction, patients showed stronger activation of the dorsolateral and ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC and vlPFC) and primary (S1) and secondary (S2) somatosensory areas (Dyadic-Solo contrast), and clinicians showed increased dynamic dlPFC concordance with patients’ S2 activity during pain. Furthermore, the strength of S2-dlPFC concordance was positively correlated with self-reported therapeutic alliance. These findings support that empathy and supportive care can reduce pain intensity and shed light on the brain processes underpinning social modulation of pain in patient-clinician interactions. Our findings further suggest that clinicians’ dlPFC concordance with patients’ somatosensory processing during pain can be boosted by increasing therapeutic alliance.