The quality of the patient-clinician relationship is widely held to impact a patient’s response to treatment. Exactly how, though, has long remained a mystery. In a study reported in October 2020, Martinos Center researchers began to explore the questions of which parts of the brain and which types of behaviors play a role in the patient-clinician relationship and influence the clinical response.
“We talk about medicine being an art as well as a science, but we know almost nothing about the neurobiology underlying the patient-clinician interaction,” says Vitaly Napadow, director of the Center for Integrative Pain NeuroImaging (CIPNI) housed in the Martinos Center and senior author of the paper, published in the journal Science Advances. “Understanding the neural underpinnings can play a critically important role in optimizing patient-clinician interactions for clinical benefit.”
To this end, Napadow and colleagues used the novel imaging platform “hyperscanning functional MRI,” in which two or more MRI scanners are connected to enable simultaneous tracking of the neural responses in individuals interacting with one another.
For the experiment described in the study, the individuals interacting with one another were an acupuncturist and a chronic pain patient undergoing treatment for pain. The two communicated by way of a video chat as the patient was treated remotely with electroacupuncture and administered a moderate pressure pain. Using hyperscanning and automated video recording analysis, the researchers were able to track the effects of different behaviors on the brain during the patient-clinician interactions.
Why was this important? “Synching up with one another during interpersonal interactions may help optimize brain processing,” says Dan-Mikael Ellingsen, the lead author of the study. “And it has been suggested that such physiological concordance may support empathy and social bonding.” Ellingsen, a postdoctoral fellow at Martinos Center when he contributed to the study, is now at the Department of Psychology of the University of Oslo.
In fact, the researchers found that clinicians mirrored the facial expressions of patients expecting pain and treatment, and that the same regions of the brain were dynamically synchronized in activity across both patients and clinicians during the interactions. These regions were part of the neural circuitry already known to be associated with social mirroring and the theory of mind, which describes the process of inferring another person’s mental state—both of which relate to empathy.
“Thus, the work tells us that mirroring facial expressions can reinforce the patient-clinician bond and boost the impact of treatment,” Napadow says, “indicating that the clinical encounter has a demonstrable effect on the brain, emotions and clinical outcomes.”