Research has demonstrated that motor control is directly influenced by observation of others’ action, stimulating the mirror neuron system. In addition, there is evidence that both emotion and empathy after observing a painful stimulus affects motor cortical excitability and reaction times. Aim of the present two pilot studies is a) to test for significant influence of observing other’s painful bending of the trunk on execution of the same activity in a self-directed bending action (study 1) and to compare these results with a bending action according to a strict bending protocol (study 2). In addition to study 1, differences between Low Back Pain (LBP) patients versus healthy subjects are tested. Video footage of a (1) neutral, (2) painful, and (3) happy bending action was presented in random order. Changes in flexion–relaxation phenomenon (FRP) of back muscles were studied directly after watching the videos with surface EMG, in study 1 during a self-directed bending action in LBP patients and healthy subjects, in study 2 according to a strict bending protocol. FRP ratios were calculated by a custom-made analysis scheme tested for sufficient reliability prior to both studies. Evoked emotions were measured with an Emotional Questionnaire after each video. A Mixed Model ANOVA was used to test for the effect video and the difference between LBP and healthy subjects on the FRP-rs. Differences in evoked emotion will be tested with a Wilcoxon Signed Rank Test. In study 1, 24 healthy controls and 16 LBP patients FRP-rs were significantly influenced after observing a painful video in all subjects versus a happy and neutral video (p = 0.00). No differences were present between LBP and healthy controls. All subjects experienced more fear after observation of the painful video (p 0.05). In study 2, 6 healthy subjects followed the strict FRP bending protocol for three times after observing each video. No significant changes occurred in FRPs per video compared to FRPs of six healthy subjects carrying out the spontaneous bending activity. Observing a painful action in another person changes motor performance and increases fear in both people with and without back pain, during self-directed trunk flexion, but not during a protocolled trunk flexion.

Action observation, Empathy, Low back pain, Mirror neuron system, Motor control,
Experimental Brain Research
Department of Neuroscience

Pool-Goudzwaard, A.L, Groeneveld, W. (Wim), Coppieters, M.W. (Michel W.), & Waterink, W. (2018). Changes in spontaneous overt motor execution immediately after observing others’ painful action: two pilot studies. Experimental Brain Research, 1–13. doi:10.1007/s00221-018-5290-7