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Amygdala activation at 3T in response to human and avatar facial expressions of emotions.

Moser E.ab, Derntl, Robinson S.a, Fink B.d, Gur R.C.b, Grammer K.e

a MR Centre of Excellence, Medical University of Vienna, Vienna, Austria
b Department for Psychiatry, University of Pennsylvania Medical Centre, Philadelphia, PA, USA
c Faculty of Psychology, University of Vienna, Vienna, Austria
d Department for Sociobiology/Anthropology, University of Goettingen, Goettingen, Germany
e Ludwig-Boltzmann-Institute for Urban Ethology, Vienna, Austria


Journal of Neuroscience Methods. 2006 Nov 24; [Epub ahead of print]PMID: 17126910

Facial expressions of emotions are important in nonverbal communication. Although numerous neural structures have been identified to be involved in emotional face processing, the amygdala is thought to be a core moderator. While previous studies have relied on facial images of humans, the present study is concerned with the effect of computer-generated (avatar) emotional faces on amygdala activation. Moreover, elicited activation patterns in response to viewing avatar faces are compared with the neuronal responses to human facial expressions of emotions. Twelvehealthy subjects (five females) performed facial emotion recognition tasks with optimized 3T event-related fMRI. Robust amygdala activation was apparent in response to both human and avatar emotional faces, but the response was significantly stronger to human faces in face-sensitive structures, i.e. fusiform gyri. We suggest that avatars could be a useful tool in neuroimaging studies of facial expression processing because they elicit amygdala activation similarly to human faces, yet have the advantage of being highly manipulable and fully controllable. However, the finding of differences between human and avatar faces in face-sensitive regions indicates the presence of mechanisms by which human brains can differentiate between them. This mechanism merits further investigation. In our view this a breakthrough in stimulus generation for emotions in fmri research.



On the left the reactions to the avatar are shown, on the right those to the real faces. Note that although both stimuli types activate almost the same brainregions, the reactions to the avatars (virtual 3d faces) are more differentiated but natural faces evoke higher responses in face sensitive regions.



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