Alexithymic features and automatic amygdala reactivity to facial emotion

Harald Kugel, Mischa Eichmann, Udo Dannlowski, Patricia Ohrmann, Jochen Bauer, Volker Arolt, Walter Heindel, Thomas Suslow
Neuroscience Letters 2008 April 11, 435 (1): 40-4
Alexithymic individuals have difficulties in identifying and verbalizing their emotions. The amygdala is known to play a central role in processing emotion stimuli and in generating emotional experience. In the present study automatic amygdala reactivity to facial emotion was investigated as a function of alexithymia (as assessed by the 20-Item Toronto Alexithymia Scale). The Beck-Depression Inventory (BDI) and the State-Trait-Anxiety Inventory (STAI) were administered to measure participants' depressivity and trait anxiety. During 3T fMRI scanning, pictures of faces bearing sad, happy, and neutral expressions masked by neutral faces were presented to 21 healthy volunteers. The amygdala was selected as the region of interest (ROI) and voxel values of the ROI were extracted, summarized by mean and tested among the different conditions. A detection task was applied to assess participants' awareness of the masked emotional faces shown in the fMRI experiment. Masked sad and happy facial emotions led to greater right amygdala activation than masked neutral faces. The alexithymia feature difficulties identifying feelings was negatively correlated with the neural response of the right amygdala to masked sad faces, even when controlling for depressivity and anxiety. Reduced automatic amygdala responsivity may contribute to problems in identifying one's emotions in everyday life. Low spontaneous reactivity of the amygdala to sad faces could implicate less engagement in the encoding of negative emotional stimuli.

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