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J Neurosci. 2014 May 7;34(19):6573-82. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3507-13.2014.

Fear from the heart: sensitivity to fear stimuli depends on individual heartbeats.

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Department of Psychiatry, Brighton and Sussex Medical School, and Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science, University of Sussex, Falmer BN1 9RR, United Kingdom, Scientific Department, Fondazione IRCCs Instituto Neurologico Besta, 20133 Milan, Italy, Centre for Advanced Imaging, The University of Queensland, Brisbane St Lucia QLD 4072, Australia, Department of Informatics, University of Sussex, Falmer BN1 9QJ, United Kingdom, and Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, University College London, London WC1N 3BG, United Kingdom.


Cognitions and emotions can be influenced by bodily physiology. Here, we investigated whether the processing of brief fear stimuli is selectively gated by their timing in relation to individual heartbeats. Emotional and neutral faces were presented to human volunteers at cardiac systole, when ejection of blood from the heart causes arterial baroreceptors to signal centrally the strength and timing of each heartbeat, and at diastole, the period between heartbeats when baroreceptors are quiescent. Participants performed behavioral and neuroimaging tasks to determine whether these interoceptive signals influence the detection of emotional stimuli at the threshold of conscious awareness and alter judgments of emotionality of fearful and neutral faces. Our results show that fearful faces were detected more easily and were rated as more intense at systole than at diastole. Correspondingly, amygdala responses were greater to fearful faces presented at systole relative to diastole. These novel findings highlight a major channel by which short-term interoceptive fluctuations enhance perceptual and evaluative processes specifically related to the processing of fear and threat and counter the view that baroreceptor afferent signaling is always inhibitory to sensory perception.


amygdala; anxiety; attention; baroreceptor; emotion; fMRI

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