The emerging study of positive empathy offers new avenues for understanding abnormalities in social function that characterize mood disorders. For example, acutely depressed patients show decreased responsiveness to personal rewards. In a simple extension of this work, we are investigating whether these individuals also exhibit deficits in positive empathy (i.e., reduced responsiveness to others' rewards and positive experiences). In addition, we are exploring whether interventions and drug treatments can reverse hyporeactivity to others' rewards in depressed patients. Together, these studies could provide insight into how positive empathy relates to the development and duration of mood disorders, as well as revealing more efficacious treatment approaches.
In a related line of research, we are examining how individuals with depression and bipolar disorder respond when others fail to empathize with them. In healthy participants, we discovered that rejection-sensitive individuals felt less understood when receiving negative feedback, as well as showing amplified neural responses in regions related to negative emotion (i.e., anterior insula). Similarly, both bipolar and depressed participants felt less understood and more negative when receiving negative feedback (compared to healthy controls). By understanding how mood disorders alter these emotional processes, we can more accurately target interventions and tailor therapy to buffer individuals from the harmful consequences of not feeling understood.