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2022 Center for Research on Empathy and Compassion Seed Grant Awardees

Investigating Racially-Modulated Neuromarkers of Pain Empathy with Electrophysiology

PI: Alessandro D'Amico, Ph.D. Student


Team: Dr. Virginia de Sa (PI), Alessandro D’Amico (Co-PI), Dr. Sarah Fabi (Co-PI)

Project Description: Racial biases manifest in various forms from a disproportionately Black prison population in the U.S., to Black patients’ pain being consistently underestimated and symptoms inadequately treated. While education and training may be effective at reducing biases, ameliorating biases by increasing empathy and compassion is another worthy goal. In order to accurately measure changes in empathy, we must first better understand the neural correlates of empathy and how those neural correlates are modulated by racial biases. To do this, we will investigate EEG correlates of perceived pain in others versus self. We hypothesize we’ll be able to isolate the neural correlates of empathic pain by comparing the differences between a participant’s response to their own versus other faces and we further expect to see a racial bias such that White participants’ neural responses to their own face look more like those to White faces than to Black faces. Our research is an important first step towards better understanding the neural correlates of racially-modulated empathy and our findings will allow us to design novel interventions in order to ameliorate racial bias in individuals.


Pilot study to assess the usability and utility of a text-based system to deliver ecological momentary stress assessments to attending and resident physicians.

PI: Byron Fergerson, M.D.


Team: Byron Fergerson, M.D. (PI), Matthew Herbert Ph.D., Minh Hai Tran MBBS

Project Description: Physician stress is at epidemic proportions and is affecting patient care. To combat this, we must continuously assess stress levels using validated measures. Currently, such measures are administered irregularly with minimal coordination. Stress fluctuates making infrequent assessments ineffective. We are developing a system to deliver a single-item stress question via text to evaluate the real-time stress of attending physicians. We believe this system will minimize recall bias and maximize in-the-moment validity. We will enhance engagement with wellness education, anonymous feedback options, and personalized stress metrics. We envision the future of this system as a means to continuously monitor physician stress.

2nd Year Renewal- An established paradigm for defining the physiological roots of empathy and compassion -- what can rodents teach us?

PI: Laleh Quinn PhD


Team: Laleh Quinn PhD (PI), Andrea Chiba PhD, Nicole La Grange

Project Description: Empathy is often considered to have a dual nature, one side holding an affective component, the other cognitive.  Phylogenetically more ancient, affective empathy may be considered to exist in “lower” animals that are capable of sharing the emotional state of others.  Our studies utilize a rodent model to shed light on the roots of both affective empathy and compassion. We will determine whether rats share in the distress of another, and whether such shared affect enhances or hinders helping behavior, a proxy for compassion. Our findings could also have the benefit of resulting in a better understanding, and thus treatment of “lower” animals.

Two heads are better than one: the coordination of cooperative risk assessment in prosocial rat groups

PI: Lara Rangel, Ph.D.


Team: Lara Rangel Ph.D. (PI), Teryn Johnson

Project Description: Social groups can provide critical cooperative protection from danger. When groups work together to assess and combat threats, key roles can be divided among members, requiring mechanisms for communicating and coordinating decisions across the group. When encountering new visual stimuli, albino rats freeze and exhibit horizontal side-to-side head swaying gestures. Notably, jointly housed rats coordinate the number, onset, speed, duration, and instantaneous phase of these gestures among group members. This project investigates whether coordinated head swaying constitutes a shared affective state (a form of empathy) and embodied communication in prosocial rats that facilitates group decisions in response to mutual threats.

Molecular and neuronal basis of social empathy in mice

PI: Scott Sternson, Ph.D.


Team: Scott M Sternson, Ph.D. (mentor), Zhenggang Zhu (postdoc)

Project Description: Motivation elicited by observation of the actions of a conspecific is prominent in mammals and is an evolutionarily conserved proxy for human empathy and compassion. However, the relationship between how the brain encodes self-motivated behaviors versus social motivation is unclear. For example, are there distinct cell types in the brain for self-motivation and observation-evoked empathy, or is there a shared circuitry encoding motivated-behavioral-states that reflect convergence points between self-motivated and social behaviors? This question can be investigated in the mouse hypothalamus, which has diverse cell types and is a key integratory site for self-motivation (e.g., feeding and drinking), social interaction, and encoding other's motivation. Our hypothesis is that molecularly defined hypothalamic 'empathy neurons' act as a bridge for integrating social information and interact with the self-motivation neurons to trigger social empathy. Our project will test the hypothesis by modeling empathy behaviors, functionally identifying empathy neurons via volumetric two-photon calcium imaging, and delineating their molecular identity.