Neural processing of threat cues in social environments.
Han S., Gao X., Humphreys GW., Ge J.
Previous research showed that the processing of overt threat cues formed by evolutionary experience such as snake or angry face induced automatic increased responses of the emotion-related system consisting of the amygdala, the anterior cingulate, and the orbitofrontal cortex. The present study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate brain circuits involved in perception of threat cues that lack obvious emotion contents but are potentially dangerous in a particular social situation. Subjects were scanned while watching images showing a person in either a safe or a potentially dangerous situation and being asked to detect threat signals or to evaluate the degree of threat. We found that, in contrast with gender identification, threat detection and evaluation were underpinned by a neural network, shared by both male and female subjects, consisting of the medial and lateral frontal cortex, superior parietal lobes, posterior middle temporal cortex, and cerebellum. In addition, detection of threat cues was associated with stronger posterior parietal activation for males than females. Our findings suggest that neural processing of evolutionary unprepared threat cues in social environments does not necessarily involve the emotion-related neural system and is influence by evolutionary pressure on sex differences.