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Psychiatry Res. 2012 Aug-Sep;203(2-3):159-65. doi: 10.1016/j.pscychresns.2011.12.010. Epub 2012 Sep 1.

Amygdala responses to masked and low spatial frequency fearful faces: a preliminary fMRI study in panic disorder.

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Department of Psychology, University of Bologna, Bologna, Italy.


Previous studies have demonstrated amygdala activation in response to fearful faces even if presented below the threshold of conscious visual perception. It has also been proposed that subcortical regions are selectively sensitive to low spatial frequency (LSF) information. However, chronic hyperarousal may reduce amygdala activation in panic disorder (PD). Our aim was to establish whether the amygdala is engaged by masked and LSF fearful faces in PD as compared to healthy subjects. Neutral faces were used as the mask stimulus. Thirteen PD patients (seven females, six males; mean age=29.1 (S.D: 5.9)) and 15 healthy volunteers (seven females, eight males; mean age=27.9 (S.D. 4.5)) underwent two passive viewing tasks during a 3T functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) as follows: 1) presentation of faces with fearful versus neutral expressions (17ms) using a backward masking procedure and 2) presentation of the same faces whose spatial frequency contents had been manipulated by low-pass filtering. Level of awareness was confirmed by a forced choice fear-detection task. Whereas controls showed bilateral activation to fearful masked faces versus neutral faces, patients failed to show activation within the amygdala. LSF stimuli did not elicit amygdala response in either group, contrary to the view that LSF information plays a crucial role in the processing of facial expressions in the amygdala. Findings suggest maladaptive amygdala responses to potentially threatening visual stimuli in PD patients.

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