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How age changes brain responses to facial expressions of emotion

MARCH 01, 2008

Dr Quinton Deeley at the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London, is the lead author of a paper that investigates age-related changes in brain responses to facial expressions of emotion in healthy males from adolescence to middle age.  The paper entitled Changes in male brain responses to emotional faces from adolescence to middle age is published in the March Issue of the journal Neuroimage.  

The ability to detect, interpret, and respond to facial expression of emotion is fundamental to normal social behaviour, and changes with age. Also, the detection and response to facial expression is impaired in common psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia, along with differences in brain responses to facial expressions. In addition, the incidence of some psychiatric disorders changes with age - for example, the onset of paranoid schizophrenia (in which people misconstrue the social behaviour of others, and/or differ in emotional reactivity) normally peaks at age 18 in men, and is rare before age 10 and past age 40. A necessary first step in understanding impairments of face processing is, therefore, to investigate normal age-related changes in brain responses to facial emotions in the period during which many common psychiatric disorders emerge.

The researchers measured brain activity with fMRI in 40 right handed healthy male controls, age range 8– 50 years, while they were shown pictures of fearful, disgusted, and neutral facial expressions. Brain activity to fearful and disgusted expressions diminished with increasing age in key brain regions involved in interpreting social behaviour and relations between self and others (dorsomedial prefrontal cortex), and attention (middle frontal gyri).  Hence, in healthy subjects, the functional anatomy of facial emotion processing is not ‘hard-wired’, but undergoes progressive change into adulthood. Possible explanations for the age-related changes in dorsomedial and middle frontal cortical activity may include a reduction in the attention required to appraise facial expressions as perceptual skill increases, or changes in the threshold for interpreting facial expressions as relevant to the self during social and cognitive development.
The paper Changes in male brain responses to emotional faces from adolescence to middle age is published in Neuroimage Volume 40, Issue 1 (1 March 2008); for full details of the research please refer to the journal.  The paper's authors are:  Quinton Deeley, Eileen M. Daly, Rayna Azuma, Simon Surguladze, Vincent Giampietro,Michael J. Brammer,Brian Hallahan, Robin I.M. Dunbar, Mary L. Phillips, and Declan G.M. Murphy

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