Doctors do feel your pain, brain scans reveal
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Doctors actually experience their patients' pain and relief, brain scans have revealed.
In a novel investigation in which physicians underwent brain scans while they believed they were actually treating patients, researchers have provided the first scientific evidence indicating that doctors truly can feel their patients' pain and experience their relief following treatment.
The new findings, published in Molecular Psychiatry, shed light on one of the more intangible aspects of health care: the doctor-patient relationship.
"Our findings showed that the same brain regions that have previously been shown to be activated when patients receive placebo therapies are similarly activated in the brains of doctors when they administer what they think are effective treatments," said first author Karin Jensen, HMS research fellow in the Department of Psychiatry and Martinos Center for Biological Imaging at Mass General.
She said, the physicians who reported greater ability to empathise with their patients' feelings experienced higher satisfaction during the patients' treatments, as reflected in the brain scans.
"By demonstrating that caring for patients involves a complex set of brain events, including deep understanding of the patient's facial and body expressions, possibly in combination with the physician's own expectations of relief and feelings of reward, we have been able to elucidate the neurobiology underlying care-giving," said senior author Ted Kaptchuk.
Scientists developed a unique equipment arrangement that would enable them to conduct functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the physicians' brains while the doctors had face-to-face interactions with patients, including observing patients as they underwent pain treatments.
They found that while treating patients, the physicians activated the right VLPFC region of the brain, a region previously implicated in the placebo response.
Jensen said, the physicians' ability to take the patients' viewpoints correlated to brain activations and subjective ratings: Physicians who reported high perspective-taking skills were more likely to show activation in the rACC brain region, which is associated with reward.
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