Ewald Moser, Birgit Derntl, Simon Robinson, Bernhard Fink, Ruben Gur and Karl Grammer

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

Journal of Neuroscience Methods

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. Twelve healthy 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.