J Korean Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry.  2016 Sep;27(3):196-206. 10.5765/jkacap.2016.27.3.196.

Neural Correlates of Cognitive and Emotional Empathy in Patients with Autism Spectrum Disorder

  • 1Department of Psychiatry, Chungbuk National University Hospital, Cheongju, Korea.
  • 2Department of Neuropsychiatry, College of Medicine, Chungbuk National University, Cheongju, Korea. mammosss@hanmail.net
  • 3Department of Psychology, Chungbuk National University, Cheongju, Korea.
  • 4Didim Psychiatric Clinic, Seoul, Korea.
  • 5SeoulTop Child Adolescent Psychiatric Clinic, Seoul, Korea.
  • 6MindDoctor's Clinic for Junior, Seoul, Korea.


Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are considered to have problems with empathy. It has recently been suggested that there are two systems for empathy; cognitive and emotional. We aimed to investigate the neural response to cognitive and emotional empathy and elucidate the neurobiological aspects of empathy in patients with ASD.
We recruited patients with ASD (N=17, ASD group) and healthy controls (HC) (N=22, HC group) for an functional magnetic resonance imaging study. All of the subjects were scanned while performing cognitive and emotional empathy tasks. The differences in brain activation between the groups were assessed by contrasting their neural activity during the tasks.
During both tasks, the ASD group showed greater neural activities in the bilateral occipital area compared to the HC group. The ASD group showed more activation in the bilateral precunei only during the emotional empathy task. No brain regions were more activated in the HC group than in the ASD group during the cognitive empathy task. While performing the emotional empathy task, the HC group exhibited greater neural activities in the left middle frontal gyrus and right anterior cingulate gyrus than the ASD group.
This study showed that the brain regions associated with cognitive and emotional empathy in ASD patients differed from those in healthy individuals. The results of this study suggest that individuals with ASD might have defects both in cognitive empathy and in emotional empathy.


Autism Spectrum Disorder; Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging; Cognitive Empathy; Emotional Empathy
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