Researchers at the Institute for Basic Science (IBS) have discovered the genetic causes of fear triggered by empathy. Studies conducted on mice have unveiled a genetic variant that controls and increases this type of fear. The characteristic in question could be the basis of human diseases such as autism, psychopathy and schizophrenia.
Fear is caused both by direct danger and by observing other endangered individuals. This means that empathy is essential to trigger instinct to escape or a reaction. This phenomenon is present not only in humans, but also in rats and mice. For this reason, the IBS researchers used them to study the fear caused by empathy.
In the study, the guinea pigs had to watch some comrades while they received a light electric discharge. The observer mice reacted as if they were receiving the discharge themselves. In particular, the most marked reactions were observed in the guinea pigs with a variant in the Nrxn3 gene. By introducing the genetic variant in mice with a medium degree of empathy, the subjects showed a higher degree of empathic fear.
The Nrxn3 gene is coding for a protein that connects neurons and is present mainly in the cerebral cortex. In particular, the gene involves the cingulate anterior cortex. This area plays an essential role in the fear caused by empathy, but not only. It is in fact linked to affection, social relationships and pain.
IBS scientists have identified for the first time a genetic variant linked to the control of empathy. More in-depth studies could pave the way for new treatments for a wide range of mental disorders.