Intersubject variability in fearful face processing: the link between behavior and neural activation

Publication Karolinska Institutet

Tracy J. Doty, Shruti Japee, Martin Ingvar, Leslie G. Ungerleider.

Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci (2014) 14: 1438


Stimuli that signal threat show considerable variability in the extents to which they enhance behavior, even among healthy individuals. However, the neural underpinning of this behavioral variability is not well understood. By manipulating expectation of threat in an fMRI study of fearful versus neutral face categorization, we uncovered a network of areas underlying variability in threat processing in healthy adults. We explicitly altered expectations by presenting face images at three different expectation levels: 80 %, 50 %, and 20 %. Subjects were instructed to report as quickly and accurately as possible whether the face was fearful (signaled threat) or not. An uninformative cue preceded each face by 4 s. By taking the difference between reaction times (RTs) to fearful and neutral faces, we quantified an overall fear RT bias (i.e., faster to fearful than to neutral faces) for each subject. This bias correlated positively with late-trial fMRI activation (8 s after the face) during unexpected-fearful-face trials in bilateral ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the left subgenual cingulate cortex, and the right caudate nucleus, and correlated negatively with early-trial fMRI activation (4 s after the cue) during expected-neutral-face trials in bilateral dorsal striatum and the right ventral striatum. These results demonstrate that the variability in threat processing among healthy adults is reflected not only in behavior, but also in the magnitude of activation in medial prefrontal and striatal regions that appear to encode affective value.