Research Reports - Impaired emotional contagion following severe traumatic brain injury

Int J Psychophysiol. 2013 Jun 18

Rushby JA, McDonald S, Randall R, de Sousa A, Trimmer E, Fisher A


Empathy deficits are widely-documented in individuals after severe traumatic
brain injury (TBI). This study examined the relationship between empathy deficits
and psychophysiological responsivity in adults with TBI to determine if impaired
responsivity is ameliorated through repeated emotional stimulus presentations.
Nineteen TBI participants (13 males; 41years) and 25 control participants (14
males; 31years) viewed five repetitions of six 2-min film clip segments
containing pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral content. Facial muscle responses
(zygomaticus and corrugator), tonic heart rate (HR) and skin conductance level
(SCL) were recorded. Mean responses for each viewing period were compared to a
pre-experiment 2-min resting baseline period. Self-reported emotional empathy was
also assessed. TBI participants demonstrated identical EMG response patterns to
controls, i.e. an initial large facial response to both pleasant and unpleasant
films, followed by habituation over repetitions for pleasant films, and sustained
response to unpleasant films. Additionally, an increase in both arousal and HR
deceleration to stimulus repetitions was found, which was larger for TBI
participants. Compared to controls, TBI participants self-reported lower
emotional empathy, and had lower resting arousal, and these measures were
positively correlated. Results are consistent with TBI producing impairments in
emotional empathy and responsivity. While some normalisation of physiological
arousal appeared with repeated stimulus presentations, this came at the cost of
greater attentional effort.

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