Mattavelli, G., Sormaz, M., Flack, T., Asghar, A.U.R., Fan, S., Frey, J., Manssuer, L., Usten, D., Young, A.W. & Andrews, T.J. (2014). Neural responses to facial expressions support the role of the amygdala in processing threat. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 9(11), 1684-1689.

The amygdala is known to play an important role in the response to facial expressions that convey fear. However, it remains unclear whether the amygdala’s response to fear reflects its role in the interpretation of danger and threat, or whether it is to some extent activated by all facial expressions of emotion. Previous attempts to address this issue using neuroimaging have been confounded by differences in the use of control stimuli across studies. Here, we address this issue using a block design functional magnetic resonance imaging paradigm, in which we compared the response to face images posing expressions of fear, anger, happiness, disgust and sadness with a range of control conditions. The responses in the amygdala to different facial expressions were compared with the responses to a non-face condition (buildings), to mildly happy faces and to neutral faces. Results showed that only fear and anger elicited significantly greater responses compared with the control conditions involving faces. Overall, these findings are consistent with the role of the amygdala in processing threat, rather than in the processing of all facial expressions of emotion, and demonstrate the critical importance of the choice of comparison condition to the pattern of results.

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