Background: The present study sought to clarify the relationship between empathy trait and attention responses to happy, angry, surprised, afraid, and sad facial expressions. As indices of attention, we recorded event-related potentials (ERP) and focused on N170 and late positive potential (LPP) components. Methods: Twenty-two participants (12 males, 10 females) discriminated facial expressions (happy, angry, surprised, afraid, and sad) from emotionally neutral faces under an oddball paradigm. The empathy trait of participants was measured using the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI, J Pers Soc Psychol 44:113-126, 1983). Results: Participants with higher IRI scores showed: 1) more negative amplitude of N170 (140 to 200 ms) in the right posterior temporal area elicited by happy, angry, surprised, and afraid faces; 2) more positive amplitude of early LPP (300 to 600 ms) in the parietal area elicited in response to angry and afraid faces; and 3) more positive amplitude of late LPP (600 to 800 ms) in the frontal area elicited in response to happy, angry, surprised, afraid, and sad faces, compared to participants with lower IRI scores. Conclusions: These results suggest that individuals with high empathy pay attention to various facial expressions more than those with low empathy, from very-early stage (reflected in N170) to late-stage (reflected in LPP) processing of faces.
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