Amygdala reactivity predicts automatic negative evaluations for facial emotions

Udo Dannlowski, Patricia Ohrmann, Jochen Bauer, Harald Kugel, Volker Arolt, Walter Heindel, Thomas Suslow
Psychiatry Research 2007 January 15, 154 (1): 13-20
The amygdala is a key structure in a limbic circuit involved in the rapid and unconscious processing of facial emotions. In the present study, the role of the amygdala in automatic, involuntary appraisal processes, which are believed to be a crucial component of emotion processing, was investigated in 23 healthy subjects. Amygdala activity was recorded in response to masked displays of angry, sad, and happy facial expressions using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). In a subsequent experiment, the subjects performed a masked affective priming task that characterizes automatic emotion processing by investigating the biasing effect of subliminally presented emotional faces on evaluative ratings to subsequently presented neutral stimuli. In the affective priming task, significant valence-congruent evaluation manipulation was observed. Subjects rated neutral targets more positively if they were primed by happy faces. Significant correlations were found between amygdala responses to masked negative facial expressions and negative evaluation shifts elicited by the corresponding emotion quality in the affective priming task. Spontaneous amygdala reactivity to facial emotions appears to be a determinant of automatic negative evaluative response tendencies. This finding might shed some light on how amygdala hyperresponsivity contributes to negative cognitive biases commonly observed in affective disorders.

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