Emotional contagion is the most ancestral form of empathy. We tested to what extent the proximate mechanisms of emotional contagion are evolutionarily conserved by assessing the role of oxytocin, known to regulate empathic behaviors in mammals, in social fear contagion in zebrafish. Using oxytocin and oxytocin receptor mutants, we show that oxytocin is both necessary and sufficient for observer zebrafish to imitate the distressed behavior of conspecific demonstrators. The brain regions associated with emotional contagion in zebrafish are homologous to those involved in the same process in rodents (e.g., striatum, lateral septum), receiving direct projections from oxytocinergic neurons located in the pre-optic area. Together, our results support an evolutionary conserved role for oxytocin as a key regulator of basic empathic behaviors across vertebrates.
Wednesday, April 05, 2023
The fundamentals of empathy
Akinrinade et al. show that the neuropeptide oxytocin is responsible for emotional fear contagion, and involves the same regions of the brain in zebrafish and in mammals, suggesting this most basal form of empathy could have evolved many, many millions of years ago.