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Previous research showed that automatic emotion regulation is associated with activation of subcortical areas and subsequent feedforward processes to cortical areas. In contrast, cognitive awareness of emotions is mediated by negative feedback from cortical to subcortical areas. Pregenual anterior cingulate cortex (pgACC) is essential in the modulation of both affect and alexithymia. We considered the interplay between these two mechanisms in the pgACC and their relationship with alexithymia.
In 68 healthy participants (30 women, age = 26.15 ± 4.22) we tested associations of emotion processing and alexithymia with excitation/inhibition (E/I) balance represented as glutamate (Glu)/GABA in the pgACC measured via magnetic resonance spectroscopy in 7 T.
Alexithymia was positively correlated with the Glu/GABA ratio (N = 41, p = 0.0393). Further, cognitive self-awareness showed an association with Glu/GABA (N = 52, p = 0.003), which was driven by a correlation with GABA. In contrast, emotion regulation was only correlated with glutamate levels in the pgACC (N = 49, p = 0.008).
Our results corroborate the importance of the pgACC as a mediating region of alexithymia, reflected in an altered E/I balance. Furthermore, we could specify that this altered balance is linked to a GABA-related modulation of cognitive self-awareness of emotions.
Depression has been associated with limbic hyperactivation and frontal hypoactivation in response to negative facial stimuli. Anxiety disorders have also been associated with increased activation of emotional structures such as the amygdala and insula. This study examined to what extent activation of brain regions involved in perception of emotional faces is specific to depression and anxiety disorders in a large community-based sample of out-patients.
An event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) paradigm was used including angry, fearful, sad, happy and neutral facial expressions. One hundred and eighty-two out-patients (59 depressed, 57 anxiety and 66 co-morbid depression-anxiety) and 56 healthy controls selected from the Netherlands Study of Depression and Anxiety (NESDA) were included in the present study. Whole-brain analyses were conducted. The temporal profile of amygdala activation was also investigated.
Facial expressions activated the amygdala and fusiform gyrus in depressed patients with or without anxiety and in healthy controls, relative to scrambled faces, but this was less evident in patients with anxiety disorders. The response shape of the amygdala did not differ between groups. Depressed patients showed dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (PFC) hyperactivation in response to happy faces compared to healthy controls.
We suggest that stronger frontal activation to happy faces in depressed patients may reflect increased demands on effortful emotion regulation processes triggered by mood-incongruent stimuli. The lack of strong differences in neural activation to negative emotional faces, relative to healthy controls, may be characteristic of the mild-to-moderate severity of illness in this sample and may be indicative of a certain cognitive-emotional processing reserve.
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