Empathic responding and hippocampal volume in young children

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Stern, J. A., Botdorf, M., Cassidy, J., & Riggins, T. (2019). Empathic responding and hippocampal Vol. in young children. Developmental Psychology, 55(9), 1908–1920.


Empathic responding—the capacity to understand, resonate with, and respond sensitively to others’ emotional experiences—is a complex human faculty that calls upon multiple social, emotional, and cognitive capacities and their underlying neural systems. Emerging evidence in adults has suggested that the hippocampus and its associated network may play an important role in empathic responding, possibly via processes such as memory of emotional events, but the contribution of this structure in early childhood is unknown. We examined concurrent associations between empathic responding and hippocampal volume in a sample of 78 children (ages 4–8 years). Larger bilateral hippocampal volume (adjusted for intracranial volume) predicted greater observed empathic responses toward an experimenter in distress, but only for boys. The association was not driven by a specific subregion of the hippocampus (head, body, tail), nor did it vary with age. Empathic responding was not significantly related to amygdala volume, suggesting specificity of relations with the hippocampus. Results support the proposal that hippocampal structure contributes to individual differences in children’s empathic responding, consistent with research in adults. Findings shed light on an understudied structure in the complex neural systems supporting empathic responding and raise new questions regarding sex differences in the neurodevelopment of empathy in early childhood. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2020 APA, all rights reserved)


©American Psychological Association, 2019. This paper is not the copy of record and may not exactly replicate the authoritative document published in the APA journal. The final article is available, upon publication, at: https://doi.org/10.1037/dev0000684