We are very pleased to be hosting Prof Serge Marchand for PainAdelaide 2016. His team recently published an interesting paper and we thought it was a great opportunity for us, and for all those coming to PainAdelaide or subscribing to PainAdelaide at your place (click here to buy a pass), to get a quick window into his work.
The mere observation of someone getting hurt can make us grimace as if we were experiencing the painful situation ourselves. In fact, cortically we are! Brain imaging studies demonstrated that the empathetic observation of someone in pain, especially a loved-one, is triggering brain activity in pain-related structures in the observer .
We also know that a painful stimulus can trigger endogenous pain inhibition. If our empathic observation of a painful situation can activate the pain matrix in our brain, can it recruit endogenous pain inhibition as if it was a first person pain experience? That’s what we decided to test . We found that endogenous pain analgesia can be activated by the mere observation of a video of ourselves or of our spouse in pain (immersion of the arm in cold water).
One can speculate that we have «empathetic endogenous pain modulation» as a defence mechanism from a potentially nociceptive environment. It could also prepare us to help the person in need without having to worry about nociceptive stimuli while helping.
Several questions remain. What about strangers’ pain, would we still trigger endogenous pain inhibition? We have some preliminary results supporting that observing strangers in pain can also indeed trigger endogenous pain inhibition. However, the magnitude of inhibition is not at all comparable to the one triggered by the observation of a loved-one in pain. It reinforces the implication of factors affecting empathetic pain observation such as proximity with the person in pain.
We just finished collecting the data doing the same task with women suffering from provoked vestibulodynia (PVD). Interestingly, in these women, looking at videos of women in pain (cold pressor test) triggered hyperalgesia rather than analgesia, while the videos of men doing the same task had either no effect or an analgesic effect. As expected, adding a neutral video such as someone reading a book did not trigger pain inhibition.
We can speculate that, since PVD is specific to women, looking at another woman in pain triggers empathetic pain facilitation rather than an analgesic response, while this response was not triggered when observing men since it is implausible for men to suffer from PVD. It would be interesting to see what would happen for pain conditions that are more prevalent in men or present in both men and women.
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About Serge Marchand
Dr Serge Marchand, is the Director of the centre de recherche clinique Étienne-Le Bel of the Sherbrooke University hospital (CRCELB-CHUS). He received his PhD in Neuroscience from Université de Montréal in 1992 and then completed his post-doctoral training in neuroanatomy at the University of California in 1994. He is the author of several articles and book chapters in the field of pain mechanisms and treatment. His research is characterized by a close link between fundamental and clinical projects on the neurophysiological mechanisms implicated in the development and persistency of chronic pain.
About Véronique Gougeon
Veronique completed her bachelor degree in psychology graduating with honors at the Université du Québec en Outaouais. After this she joined Dr Serge Marchand’s laboratory to do a Masters in Clinical Sciences studying the empathic observation of pain. She is continuing her research on empathy for her doctorate, focussing on exploring the characteristic of the observer.
 Gougeon V, et al. Triggering Descending Pain Inhibition by Observing Ourselves or a Loved-One in Pain. Clinical Journal of Pain 2016;32(3):238-245.
 Jackson PL, Meltzoff AN, Decety J. How do we perceive the pain of others? A window into the neural processes involved in empathy. NeuroImage 2005;24(3):771-779.
Chief Editor: Lorimer Moseley. Associate Editor: Hopin Lee