Rodent empathy and affective neuroscience

Jules B. Panksepp, Garet P. Lahvis

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

148 Scopus citations


In the past few years, several experimental studies have suggested that empathy occurs in the social lives of rodents. Thus, rodent behavioral models can now be developed to elucidate the mechanistic substrates of empathy at levels that have heretofore been unavailable. For example, the finding that mice from certain inbred strains express behavioral and physiological responses to conspecific distress, while others do not, underscores that the genetic underpinnings of empathy are specifiable and that they could be harnessed to develop new therapies for human psychosocial impairments. However, the advent of rodent models of empathy is met at the outset with a number of theoretical and semantic problems that are similar to those previously confronted by studies of empathy in humans. The distinct underlying components of empathy must be differentiated from one another and from lay usage of the term. The primary goal of this paper is to review a set of seminal studies that are directly relevant to developing a concept of empathy in rodents. We first consider some of the psychological phenomena that have been associated with empathy, and within this context, we consider the component processes, or endophenotypes of rodent empathy. We then review a series of recent experimental studies that demonstrate the capability of rodents to detect and respond to the affective state of their social partners. We focus primarily on experiments that examine how rodents share affective experiences of fear, but we also highlight how similar types of experimental paradigms can be utilized to evaluate the possibility that rodents share positive affective experiences. Taken together, these studies were inspired by Jaak Panksepp's theory that all mammals are capable of felt affective experiences.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1864-1875
Number of pages12
JournalNeuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews
Issue number9
StatePublished - Oct 2011
Externally publishedYes


  • Altruism
  • Distress
  • Emotion
  • Fear
  • Mus musculus
  • Pain
  • Rattus norvegicus
  • Reciprocity
  • Social behavior

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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