Neural time course of pain observation in infancy

Margaret Addabbo, Nadia Bolognini, Chiara Turati

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Perception of pain in others is of great evolutionary significance for the development of human empathy. However, infants' sensitivity to others' painful experiences has not been investigated so far. Here, we explored the neural time course of infants' processing of others' pain by measuring event-related brain potentials (ERPs) while 6-month-old infants observed a painful tactile stimulation directed towards the eye and a neutral tactile stimulation on the eyebrow. We analyzed both the Negative Central (Nc) and the later Late Positive Potential (LPP) ERP components, indexing respectively attention allocation and cognitive evaluation of perceptual stimuli. Results showed that observing painful touch elicits a mid-latency Nc (300–500 ms) over the right fronto-central site, which is greater in amplitude as compared to neutral touch. A divergent activity was also visible in the centro-parietal early (550–750 ms) and late (800–1000 ms) LPP, showing increased amplitudes in response to neutral compared to painful touch. The cognitive evaluation of painful stimuli, reflected by the LPP, might thus not be fully developed at 6 months of age, as adults typically show a larger LPP in response to painful as compared to neutral stimuli. Overall, infants show early attentional attuning to others' pain. This early sensitivity to others' painful tactile experiences might form a prerequisite for the development of human empathy.

Original languageEnglish
JournalDevelopmental Science
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2020


  • body knowledge
  • empathy
  • event-related brain potentials
  • infancy
  • pain observation
  • touch

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience

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