Loss of Empathy After Severe TBI
Families, employers, and physicians of people with a severe TBI often notice dramatic personality changes. One of the most common changes they see is that the person becomes egocentric, self-centred, and insensitive to the needs of others. Why does this occur? Neuroscientists have traced it to a loss of responsiveness to the emotions of others. Testing done by researchers at at the University of New South Wales, Australia, that was published in the May 2011 issue of Elsevier’s Cortex helps us understand what is going on physiologically.
When an uninjured person sees the face of another person in distress she mimicks the distressed person’s facial expression and experiences emotional empathy. When she sees an angry face her facial muscles contort to mimick the angry person’s face and her sweat glands make sweat. But when a person with a severe TBI sees these two faces there is neither mimicking, nor sweating when he sees the angry face. This tells researchers that severe TBI can damage the neuronal circuits necessary for emotional responsiveness, including empathy in response to another’s distress and fear/alarm in response to someone else’s anger.