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Original Research ARTICLE Provisionally accepted The full-text will be published soon. Notify me

Front. Neurosci. | doi: 10.3389/fnins.2019.01038

Neural correlates of enhanced recognition of emotional facial expressions in earthquake-exposed witnesses

  • 1University of L'Aquila, Italy
  • 2Department of Psychology, University of Campania 'Luigi Vanvitelli, Italy
  • 3Institute of Biostructure and Bioimaging (IBB), Italy
  • 4Department of Applied Clinical Sciences and Biotechnology, University of L'Aquila, Italy

Major adverse events, like an earthquake, trigger different kinds of emotional dysfunctions or psychiatric disorders in the exposed subjects. Recent literature has also shown that exposure to natural disasters can increase threat detection. In particular, we previously detected a selective increase in the ability to read emotional facial expressions in L’Aquila earthquake witnesses, suggesting hypervigilance to stimuli signaling a threat. In the light of previous neuroimaging data showing that trauma exposure is related to derangement of resting-state brain activity, in the present study we investigated the neurofunctional changes related to the recognition of emotional faces in L’Aquila earthquake witnesses. Specifically, we tested the relationships between accuracy in recognizing facial expressions and activity of the visual network (VN) and of the default-mode network (DMN). Resting-state functional connectivity with the main hub of the VN (primary, ventral, right-dorsal and left-dorsal visual cortices) and DMN (posterior cingulate/precuneus, medial prefrontal, right and left inferior parietal cortices) was investigated through a seed-based fMRI analysis in both earthquake-exposed subjects and non-exposed persons who did not live in an earthquake-affected area. The results showed that, in earthquake-exposed subjects, there is a significant reduction in the correlation between accuracy in recognizing facial expressions and the functional connectivity of the dorsal seed of the VN with the right inferior occipito-temporal cortex and the left lateral temporal cortex, and of two parietal seeds of DMN, i.e., lower parietal and medial prefrontal cortex, with the precuneus bilaterally. These findings suggest that a functional modification of brain systems involved in detecting and interpreting emotional faces may represent the neurophysiological basis of the specific “emotional expertise” observed in the earthquake witnesses.

Keywords: earthquake, emotional, fMRI — functional magnetic resonance imaging, Visual network, default mode network (DMN)

Received: 03 Apr 2019; Accepted: 13 Sep 2019.

Copyright: © 2019 Pistoia, Conson, Quarantelli, Panebianco, Carolei, Curcio, Sacco, Saporito, Di Cesare, Barile, Masciocchi and Splendiani. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Prof. Alessandra Splendiani, Department of Applied Clinical Sciences and Biotechnology, University of L'Aquila, L'Aquila, 67100, Abruzzo, Italy, alessandra.splendiani@cc.univaq.it