Brain mechanisms associated with facial encoding of affective states

Abstract

Affective states are typically accompanied by facial expressions, but these behavioral manifestations are highly variable. Even highly arousing and negative valent experiences, such as pain, show great instability in facial affect encoding. The present study investigated which neural mechanisms are associated with variations in facial affect encoding by focusing on facial encoding of sustained pain experiences. Facial expressions, pain ratings, and brain activity (BOLD-fMRI) during tonic heat pain were recorded in 27 healthy participants. We analyzed facial expressions by using the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) and examined brain activations during epochs of painful stimulation that were accompanied by facial expressions of pain. Epochs of facial expressions of pain were coupled with activity increase in motor areas (M1, premotor and SMA) as well as in areas involved in nociceptive processing, including primary and secondary somatosensory cortex, posterior and anterior insula, and the anterior part of the mid-cingulate cortex. In contrast, prefrontal structures (ventrolateral and medial prefrontal) were less activated during incidences of facial expressions, consistent with a role in down-regulating facial displays. These results indicate that incidences of facial encoding of pain reflect activity within nociceptive pathways interacting or possibly competing with prefrontal inhibitory systems that gate the level of expressiveness

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