Alexithymia and automatic processing of facial emotions: behavioral and neural findings

Nicole Rosenberg, Klas Ihme, Vladimir Lichev, Julia Sacher, Michael Rufer, Hans Jörgen Grabe, Harald Kugel, André Pampel, Jöran Lepsien, Anette Kersting, Arno Villringer, Thomas Suslow
2020 BMC Neuroscience  
Alexithymia is a personality trait characterized by difficulties identifying and describing feelings, an externally oriented style of thinking, and a reduced inclination to imagination. Previous research has shown deficits in the recognition of emotional facial expressions in alexithymia and reductions of brain responsivity to emotional stimuli. Using an affective priming paradigm, we investigated automatic perception of facial emotions as a function of alexithymia at the behavioral and neural
more » ... evel. In addition to self-report scales, we applied an interview to assess alexithymic tendencies. During 3 T fMRI scanning, 49 healthy individuals judged valence of neutral faces preceded by briefly shown happy, angry, fearful, and neutral facial expressions. Alexithymia was assessed using the 20-Item Toronto Alexithymia Scale (TAS-20), the Bermond-Vorst Alexithymia Questionnaire (BVAQ) and the Toronto Structured Interview for Alexithymia (TSIA). As expected, only negative correlations were found between alexithymic features and affective priming. The global level of self-reported alexithymia (as assessed by the TAS-20 and the BVAQ) was found to be related to less affective priming owing to angry faces. At the facet level, difficulties identifying feelings, difficulties analyzing feelings, and impoverished fantasy (as measured by the BVAQ) were correlated with reduced affective priming due to angry faces. Difficulties identifying feelings (BVAQ) correlated also with reduced affective priming due to fearful faces and reduced imagination (TSIA) was related to decreased affective priming due to happy faces. There was only one significant correlation between alexithymia dimensions and automatic brain response to masked facial emotions: TAS-20 alexithymia correlated with heightened brain response to masked happy faces in superior and medial frontal areas. Our behavioral results provide evidence that alexithymic features are related in particular to less sensitivity for covert facial expressions of anger. The perceptual alterations could reflect impaired automatic recognition or integration of social anger signals into judgemental processes and might contribute to the problems in interpersonal relationships associated with alexithymia. Our findings suggest that self-report measures of alexithymia may have an advantage over interview-based tests as research tools in the field of emotion perception at least in samples of healthy individuals characterized by rather low levels of alexithymia.
doi:10.1186/s12868-020-00572-6 pmid:32471365 fatcat:aqf4pow77vfmjcslvgd52vzwqq