Wendy Wu ’22
Schizophrenia, a severe mental disorder that alters perception of reality, is marked by deficits in emotional face perception (EFP). While previous research has shown how abnormal activity in certain brain regions correlates with EFP deficits, the significance of the connections between these regions has been understudied. Amri Sabharwal, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at Stony Brook University, focused on the amygdala, a region of the brain involved with emotional experiences and which has connections to other regions of the face processing network (FPN). Sabharwal aimed to study the functional connectivity of the amygdala to these other regions during EFP in psychotic disorders. They hypothesized that lower amygdala connectivity with regions of FPN will be associated with lower global and social functioning.
Sabharwal gathered 47 participants from the Suffolk County Mental Health Project, 19 with schizophrenia spectrum disorders and 28 with other psychotic disorders. Additionally, 29 never-psychotic (NP) participants were recruited. Each participant underwent an fMRI scan in order to observe functional connectivity of the amygdala with other brain regions. Global functioning and social functioning were assessed using the Social and Occupational Functioning Assessment scale, and the Quality of Life scale, respectively. Participants performed an emotional face perception task showing emotion and neutral conditions. In each condition, participants were presented with a target face and two probe faces. In the emotion condition, participants had to match a probe face to the emotional expression (fear or anger) of the target face. In the neutral condition, participants had to match the identity of the target face.
Across the two conditions, participants with psychotic disorders showed significantly worse EFP accuracy compared to NP participants. Poor EFP accuracy correlated with worsening global and social functioning. This correlation was not unique to schizophrenia spectrum disorders, but applied broadly across psychotic disorders. Interestingly, in participants with psychotic disorders, Sabharwal observed greater amygdala connectivity with IFG and insula. This implies there may be an upregulation of emotional processing and greater awareness of physiological arousal in people with psychotic disorders during exposure to unpleasant stimuli, like fear or anger. And this upregulation, in turn, disturbs EFP and social functioning. It should be noted that participants in this study were medicated, and while this factor was statistically controlled for, effects in unmedicated participants remain unclear. Moreover, because only two negative emotions were utilized, Sabharwal’s findings cannot be generalized. Further research should explore a greater range of emotions for EFP.
 A. Sabharwal , R. Kotov, and A. Mohanty, Amygdala connectivity during emotional face perception in psychotic disorders. Schizophrenia Research (2020). doi: 10.1016/j.schres.2020.11.030.
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