Pain, empathy and
emotional processing

Our multidisciplinary research program is focused on providing mechanistic insights into the neurobiological relationships between social behavior, pain, and emotion.

We specialize in developing novel behavioral models of complex and understudied social phenomena to ultimately identify and dissect the underlying neural circuitry.

We use cutting-edge in vivo molecular-genetic, optical imaging, and pharmacological neuroscience techniques in combination with innovative behavioral approaches across multiple disciplines.


Pain is a necessary, physiologically relevant phenomenon that serves as a warning signal for actual or potential tissue damage. Chronic pain is a maladaptive disease state that persists beyond any physiologically relevant purpose.

Our understanding of pain has been limited by our focus on investigating only the sensory aspects of the pain experience. Pain has equally important emotional components and is strongly influenced by psychosocial and environmental factors.

Our research is focused on understanding how social factors influence the experience of pain and how pain changes emotional and motivational circuits.


Empathy, being affected by or sharing another’s sensory or emotional state, is a core social ability that has evolved to promote prosocial behavior and survival. Historically, empathy was considered to be an affective-cognitive process experienced solely by humans, but it is now appreciated that many species, including rodents, display a range of empathy behaviors.

With the use of modern circuit neuroscience tools, we aim to elucidate the neural mechanisms of empathy and social communication in experimentally accessible animal models.

We develop multifaceted models of rodent empathy in order to elucidate the behavioral, neural, and molecular mechanisms.


Mammals are deeply affective beings and display emotionally driven behaviors.

The ability of emotions to elicit action has presumably promoted survival, and thus emotion is inextricably involved in learning and motivation, reward and aversion, and tied to both adaptive and maladaptive behaviors.

Our research is focused on understanding how emotional processing contributes to psychological, social, and sensory disorders. Currently, we are specifically interested in investigating the neural mechanisms responsible for the emotional and motivational changes induced by pain and aversive social experiences.

Our publications

Rein, B,* Jones, E.*, Tuy, S., Boustani, C., Johnson, JJ. and Smith, M.L. Protocols for the rapid social transfer of pain and analgesia in the mouse. STAR Protocols, 3(4): 101756.

Smith, M.L., Asada, N., Malenka, R.C. (2021) Anterior cingulate inputs to nucleus accumbens control the social transfer of pain and analgesia. Science, 371(6525) 153-159.

Smith, M.L., Walcott, A.T., Heinricher, M.M. & Ryabinin, A.E. (2017) Anterior cingulate cortex contributes to alcohol withdrawal-induced and socially transferred hyperalgesia. eNeuro, 0087-17.

Smith, M.L., Hostetler, C., Heinricher, M.M. & Ryabinin, A.E. (2016) Social transfer of pain in mice. Science Advances, 2016;2: e1600855.

Lab news

Lab, Research

New Publication Alert!

May 22, 2024 | We’ve done it again! We have a new lab publication (our second publication!) exploring the social transfer of pain, but this time, with MDMA! If you’re familiar with our research, the social transfer of pain, we can explore the relative concept of empathy with pain in mouse models. For this model, … Read more
Events, Lab, Research

Big Smith Lab Updates!

March 2024 | In just the first two months of the year, the Smith Lab has already witnessed remarkable achievements and significant events unfold. The new year began with a joyous celebration as our Principal Investigator, Dr. Monique Smith, was honored with Sanford Institute’s Endowed Professorship in Empathy and Compassion Research. This distinguished recognition is … Read more

Farewell Nikki!

December 2023 | The Smith lab has been incredibly fortunate to have had Nikki Keisler, a first-year PhD student from the Neuroscience Graduate Program rotate in our lab this past Fall quarter. Apart from her evident love for neuroscience and formidable knowledge in many areas, Nikki is such a warm and attentive person who was … Read more