Functional neuroimaging investigations in the fields of social neuroscience and neuroeconomics indicate that the anterior insular cortex (AI) is consistently involved in empathy, compassion, and interpersonal phenomena such as fairness and cooperation. These findings suggest that AI plays an important role in social emotions, hereby defined as affective states that arise when we interact with other people and that depend on the social context. After we link the role of AI in social emotions to interoceptive awareness and the representation of current global emotional states, we will present a model suggesting that AI is not only involved in representing current states, but also in predicting emotional states relevant to the self and others. This model also proposes that AI enables us to learn about emotional states as well as about the uncertainty attached to events, and implies that AI plays a dominant role in decision making in complex and uncertain environments. Our review further highlights that dorsal and ventro-central, as well as anterior and posterior subdivisions of AI potentially subserve different functions and guide different aspects of behavioral regulation. We conclude with a section summarizing different routes to understanding other people’s actions, feelings and thoughts, emphasizing the notion that the predominant role of AI involves understanding others’ feeling and bodily states rather than their action intentions or abstract beliefs.
We investigate the hypothesis that those subregions of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) found to support proactive interference resolution may also support delay-spanning distractor interference resolution. Ten subjects performed delayed-recognition tasks requiring working memory for faces or shoes during functional MRI scanning. During the 15-sec delay interval, task-irrelevant distractors were presented. These distractors were either all faces or all shoes and were thus either congruent or incongruent with the domain of items in the working memory task. Delayed-recognition performance was slower and less accurate during congruent than during incongruent trials. Our fMRI analyses revealed significant delay interval activity for face and shoe working memory tasks within both dorsal and ventral PFC. However, only ventral PFC activity was modulated by distractor category, with greater activity for congruent than for incongruent trials. Importantly, this congruency effect was only present for correct trials. In addition to PFC, activity within the fusiform face area was investigated. During face distraction, activity was greater for face relative to shoe working memory. As in ventrolateral PFC, this congruency effect was only present for correct trials. These results suggest that the ventrolateral PFC and fusiform face area may work together to support delay-spanning interference resolution.
The phenomenon of empathy entails the ability to share the affective experiences of others. In recent years social neuroscience made considerable progress in revealing the mechanisms that enable a person to feel what another is feeling. The present review provides an in-depth and critical discussion of these findings. Consistent evidence shows that sharing the emotions of others is associated with activation in neural structures that are also active during the first-hand experience of that emotion. Part of the neural activation shared between self- and other-related experiences seems to be rather automatically activated. However, recent studies also show that empathy is a highly flexible phenomenon, and that vicarious responses are malleable with respect to a number of factors—such as contextual appraisal, the interpersonal relationship between empathizer and other, or the perspective adopted during observation of the other. Future investigations are needed to provide more detailed insights into these factors and their neural underpinnings. Questions such as whether individual differences in empathy can be explained by stable personality traits, whether we can train ourselves to be more empathic, and how empathy relates to prosocial behavior are of utmost relevance for both science and society.
<p>Social cognition, including complex social judgments and attitudes, is shaped by individual learning experiences, where affect often plays a critical role. Aversive classical conditioning-a form of associative learning involving a relationship between a neutral event (conditioned stimulus, CS) and an aversive event (unconditioned stimulus, US)-represents a well-controlled paradigm to study how the acquisition of socially relevant knowledge influences behavior and the brain. Unraveling the temporal unfolding of brain mechanisms involved appears critical for an initial understanding about how social cognition operates. Here, 128-channel ERPs were recorded in 50 subjects during the acquisition phase of a differential aversive classical conditioning paradigm. The CS+ (two fearful faces) were paired 50% of the time with an aversive noise (CS upward arrow + /Paired), whereas in the remaining 50% they were not (CS upward arrow + /Unpaired); the CS- (two different fearful faces) were never paired with the noise. Scalp ERP analyses revealed differences between CS upward arrow + /Unpaired and CS- as early as approximately 120 ms post-stimulus. Tomographic source localization analyses revealed early activation modulated by the CS+ in the ventral visual pathway (e.g. fusiform gyrus, approximately 120 ms), right middle frontal gyrus (approximately 176 ms), and precuneus (approximately 240 ms). At approximately 120 ms, the CS- elicited increased activation in the left insula and left middle frontal gyrus. These findings not only confirm a critical role of prefrontal, insular, and precuneus regions in aversive conditioning, but they also suggest that biologically and socially salient information modulates activation at early stages of the information processing flow, and thus furnish initial insight about how affect and social judgments operate.</p>
BACKGROUND: Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) system activation is adaptive in response to stress, and HPA dysregulation occurs in stress-related psychopathology. It is important to understand the mechanisms that modulate HPA output, yet few studies have addressed the neural circuitry associated with HPA regulation in primates and humans. Using high-resolution F-18-fluorodeoxyglucose positron emission tomography (FDG-PET) in rhesus monkeys, we assessed the relation between individual differences in brain activity and HPA function across multiple contexts that varied in stressfulness. METHODS: Using a logical AND conjunctions analysis, we assessed cortisol and brain metabolic activity with FDG-PET in 35 adolescent rhesus monkeys exposed to two threat and two home-cage conditions. To test the robustness of our findings, we used similar methods in an archival data set. In this data set, brain metabolic activity and cortisol were assessed in 17 adolescent male rhesus monkeys that were exposed to three stress-related contexts. RESULTS: Results from the two studies revealed that subgenual prefrontal cortex (PFC) metabolism (Brodmann's area 25/24) consistently predicted individual differences in plasma cortisol concentrations regardless of the context in which brain activity and cortisol were assessed. CONCLUSIONS: These findings suggest that activation in subgenual PFC may be related to HPA output across a variety of contexts (including familiar settings and novel or threatening situations). Individuals prone to elevated subgenual PFC activity across multiple contexts may be individuals who consistently show heightened cortisol and may be at risk for stress-related HPA dysregulation.
<p>Recent evidence suggests that frontal brain electrical activity reveals asymmetries in activation in response to positive vs negative affective stimuli. This study was designed to evaluate whether this asymmetry is present at birth. Newborn infants were presented with water followed by a sucrose solution and then by a citric acid solution. Facial expression was videotaped during the presentation of the liquids and EEG was recorded from the frontal and parietal scalp regions on the left and right side. Usable EEG data were obtained from 16 newborn infants in response to these taste conditions. Videotaping of facial expression in response to these stimuli indicated the presence of disgust during both water (the first taste introduced) and citric acid. EEG was Fourier Transformed and power in the 1-3, 3-6 and 6-12 Hz bands was computed. The findings revealed that the water condition produced reductions in right-hemisphere power in the two higher frequency bands in both the scalp regions compared with the other two conditions. The sucrose condition produced greater relative left-sided activation in both regions compared with the water condition. These data, in conjunction with our previous findings of asymmetries in 10-month-old infants, indicate that stimulus-elicited affective asymmetries in brain electrical activity are present at birth.</p>
Spatial working memory is a cognitive brain mechanism that enables the temporary maintenance and manipulation of spatial information. Recent neuroimaging and behavioral studies have led to the proposal that directed spatial attention is the mechanism by which location information is maintained in spatial working memory. Yet it is unclear whether attentional involvement is required throughout the period of active maintenance or is only invoked during discrete task-phases such as mnemonic encoding. In the current study, we aimed to track the time-course of attentional involvement during spatial working memory by recording event-related brain potentials (ERPs) from healthy volunteers. In Experiment 1, subjects performed a delayed-recognition task. Each trial began with the presentation of a brief stimulus (S1) that indicated the relevant location that subjects were to maintain in working memory. A 4.8-5.3 sec delay interval followed during which a single task-irrelevant probe was presented. The delay interval concluded with a test item (S2) to which subjects made a response indicating whether the S2-location was the same as the S1-memory location. To determine if attention was differentially engaged during discrete phases of the trial, task-irrelevant probes were presented early (400-800 msec following S1-offset) or late (2600-3000 msec following S1-offset) during the delay interval. Sensory-evoked ERPs (P1 and N1) elicited by these irrelevant probes showed attention-like modulations with greater amplitude responses for probes occurring at the S1-memory locations in comparison to probes presented at other locations. This pattern was obtained for both early- and late-delay probes. Probe-evoked activity during delayed-recognition trials was similar to activity observed when spatial attention was explicitly focused on a location in visual space (Experiment 2). These results are consistent with a model of spatial working memory in which perceptual level selective attention is utilized throughout the entire period of active maintenance to keep relevant spatial information in mind.
Recent neuroimaging and neuropsychological work has begun to shed light on how the brain responds to the viewing of facial expressions of emotion. However, one important category of facial expression that has not been studied on this level is the facial expression of pain. We investigated the neural response to pain expressions by performing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) as subjects viewed short video sequences showing faces expressing either moderate pain or, for comparison, no pain. In alternate blocks, the same subjects received both painful and non-painful thermal stimulation. Facial expressions of pain were found to engage cortical areas also engaged by the first-hand experience of pain, including anterior cingulate cortex and insula. The reported findings corroborate other work in which the neural response to witnessed pain has been examined from other perspectives. In addition, they lend support to the idea that common neural substrates are involved in representing one's own and others' affective states.
Four experiments testing right-handed adult males examined interhemispheric transfer time (IHTT) estimation with visual evoked potentials (EPs) elicited in response to hemiretinal presentations of checkerboard-flash stimuli. Experiment 1 was a study of the relation between reaction time (RT) and EP measures of IHTT. EP measures provided more valid estimates than RT measures because more subjects showed IHTT in the direction of anatomical prediction. Experiment 2 showed that EPs derived from lateral occipital sites provided more valid and longer estimates of IHTT compared with EPs from medial occipital sites. Experiment 3 showed no difference between random versus blocked hemiretinal stimuli. Experiment 4 showed that IHTT derived with a linked-ears reference provided more valid estimates than IHTT derived with a mid-frontal reference and that small changes in stimulus eccentricity did not influence IHTT. The findings of these experiments indicate that noninvasive estimates of visual IHTT can be obtained in humans.
This commentary provides reflections on the current state of affairs in research on EEG frontal asymmetries associated with affect. Although considerable progress has occurred since the first report on this topic 25 years ago, research on frontal EEG asymmetries associated with affect has largely evolved in the absence of any serious connection with neuroscience research on the structure and function of the primate prefrontal cortex (PFC). Such integration is important as this work progresses since the neuroscience literature can help to understand what the prefrontal cortex is "doing" in affective processing. Data from the neuroscience literature on the heterogeneity of different sectors of the PFC are introduced and more specific hypotheses are offered about what different sectors of the PFC might be doing in affect. A number of methodological issues associated with EEG measures of functional prefrontal asymmetries are also considered.
Working memory (WM) representations serve as templates that guide behavior, but the neural basis of these templates remains elusive. We tested the hypothesis that WM templates are maintained by biasing activity in sensoriperceptual neurons that code for features of items being held in memory. Neural activity was recorded using event-related potentials (ERPs) as participants viewed a series of faces and responded when a face matched a target face held in WM. Our prediction was that if activity in neurons coding for the features of the target is preferentially weighted during maintenance of the target, then ERP activity evoked by a nontarget probe face should be commensurate with the visual similarity between target and probe. Visual similarity was operationalized as the degree of overlap in visual features between target and probe. A face-sensitive ERP response was modulated by target-probe similarity. Amplitude was largest for probes that were similar to the target, and decreased monotonically as a function of decreasing target-probe similarity. These results indicate that neural activity is weighted in favor of visual features that comprise an actively held memory representation. As such, our findings support the notion that WM templates rely on neural populations involved in forming percepts of memory items.