Researchers at the University of Chicago studied the responses in children aged 7 to 12, using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scanning. The scans showed that children's responses were similar to those of adults when viewing the reaction to pain of other people.
During the experiment the scientists examined the responses of the 17 children to pain received accidentally or caused by another person. The children looked at different images of people experiencing pain in a situation when a heavy bowl was dropped into their hands, another person stepped onto a person's foot and when a person helped another person cope with pain.
The fMRI scans indicated the activation in the brain areas responsible for the processing of immediate reaction to pain, including the insula, somatosensory cortex, anterior midcigulate cortex, periaqueductal gray and supplementary motor area. The same response that indicated empathy was seen in adults in previous studies.
Scientists say that the findings reveal that empathy is not simply learned from parents or others, but is also programmed in the brains of normal children. This may later help researchers understand how brain damages can lead to anti-social behavior.
The scans also showed the activations of the brain areas, such as the temporo-parietal junction, the paracigulate, orital medial frontal cortices and amygdale, responsible for social interactions and moral judgment when the children were viewing the images of people hurt by other person.
Later, during an interview, the children described the situation when a person was hurt as unfair and asked about the reason of such a behavior.