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Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2006 Sep;1(2):122-35.

Imitating expressions: emotion-specific neural substrates in facial mimicry.

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  • 1Wellcome Department of Imaging Neuroscience, Institute of Neurology, UCL, 12 Queen Square, London WC1N 3AR, UK.


Intentionally adopting a discrete emotional facial expression can modulate the subjective feelings corresponding to that emotion; however, the underlying neural mechanism is poorly understood. We therefore used functional brain imaging (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to examine brain activity during intentional mimicry of emotional and non-emotional facial expressions and relate regional responses to the magnitude of expression-induced facial movement. Eighteen healthy subjects were scanned while imitating video clips depicting three emotional (sad, angry, happy), and two 'ingestive' (chewing and licking) facial expressions. Simultaneously, facial movement was monitored from displacement of fiducial markers (highly reflective dots) on each subject's face. Imitating emotional expressions enhanced activity within right inferior prefrontal cortex. This pattern was absent during passive viewing conditions. Moreover, the magnitude of facial movement during emotion-imitation predicted responses within right insula and motor/premotor cortices. Enhanced activity in ventromedial prefrontal cortex and frontal pole was observed during imitation of anger, in ventromedial prefrontal and rostral anterior cingulate during imitation of sadness and in striatal, amygdala and occipitotemporal during imitation of happiness. Our findings suggest a central role for right inferior frontal gyrus in the intentional imitation of emotional expressions. Further, by entering metrics for facial muscular change into analysis of brain imaging data, we highlight shared and discrete neural substrates supporting affective, action and social consequences of somatomotor emotional expression.

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