Dr. Derek Mitchell is an Assistant Professor in the Departments of Psychiatry, Anatomy & Cell Biology, and Psychology at The University of Western Ontario.
One line of Dr. Mitchell’s research focuses on how impairments in the way the brain processes emotions of others may be associated with antisocial behaviours such as aggression. Other laboratories have found that directing attention to critical social cues alleviates the emotional expression recognition deficits often found in populations of individuals with high levels of antisocial behaviour. It remained unclear, however, whether this improvement in recognition is accompanied by elevated feelings of empathy (likely a more important determinant of rehabilitation and prosocial behaviours).
Dr. Mitchell and his colleagues (Han, Alders, Greening, Neufeld, & Mitchell, 2011) tested the hypothesis that individuals with low levels of trait empathy would show abnormalities in brain regions associated with empathy, and further, that these functional brain abnormalities could be reversed by increasing attention to relevant social cues.
The team tested this hypothesis by having individuals with high callous traits (assessed with a standardized measure) engage in an emotional expression recognition task while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging. They found that, relative to a similar group of adults with high levels of trait empathy, individuals with high callous traits showed reduced activity in a number of empathy-related brain areas (e.g., the amygdala and medial prefrontal cortex). These abnormalities were most pronounced when participants were asked to decipher expressions that lacked some of the most critical facial cues (i.e., the emotions expressed were more ambiguous). These results offer further clues to the functional nature of the amygdala impairment associated with callous traits, and highlight the need for further work to disentangle the neurocognitive systems that foster healthy levels of empathy.
In ongoing work, Dr. Mitchell and his colleagues are also using neuroimaging techniques to evaluate the impact of potential new pharmacological therapies on empathy-related brain function in clinical populations, including patients with neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative disorders.
Ultimately, it is hoped that this work will help improve our understanding and ability to empirically assess mental illness, as well as identify and optimize new pharmacological and psychotherapeutic strategies to address emotional and empathic disturbances in a range of mental disorders.