Automatic amygdala response to facial expression in schizophrenia: Initial hyperresponsivity followed by hyporesponsivity

Thomas Suslow*, Christian Lindner, Udo Dannlowski, Kirsten Walhöfer, Maike Rödiger, Birgit Maisch, Jochen Bauer, Patricia Ohrmann, Rebekka Lencer, Pienie Zwitserlood, Anette Kersting, Walter Heindel, Volker Arolt, Harald Kugel

*Corresponding author for this work
19 Citations (Scopus)


Background: It is well established that the amygdala is crucially involved in the processing of facial emotions. In schizophrenia patients, a number of neuroimaging findings suggest hypoactivation of the amygdala in response to facial emotion, while others indicate normal or enhanced recruitment of this region. Some of this variability may be related to the baseline condition used and the length of the experiment. There is evidence that schizophrenia patients display increased activation of the amygdala to neutral faces and that this is predominantly observed during early parts of the experiment. Recent research examining the automatic processing of facial emotion has also reported amygdala hyperactivation in schizophrenia. In the present study, we focused on the time-course of amygdala activation during the automatic processing of emotional facial expression. We hypothesized that in comparison to healthy subjects, patients would initially show hyperresponsivity of the amygdala to masked emotional and neutral faces. In addition, we expected amygdala deactivation in response to masked facial emotions from the first to the second phase to be more pronounced in patients than in controls.Results: Amygdala activation in response to angry, happy, neutral, and no facial expression (presented for 33 ms) was measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging in 30 schizophrenia patients and 35 healthy controls. Across all subjects, the bilateral amygdala response to faces (relative to the no facial expression condition) was larger in the initial phase (first half of trials) than in the second phase (second half of trials). During the initial phase, schizophrenia patients exhibited an increased right amygdala response to all faces and an increased left amygdala response to neutral faces compared with controls. During the second phase, controls manifested a higher right amygdala response for all faces and a higher left amygdala response to angry faces than patients.Conclusions: Schizophrenia patients are characterized by high initial amygdala responsivity to facial expressions at an automatic processing level, which substantially decreases with time. Amygdala deactivation over time might reflect an automatic mechanism by which schizophrenia patients suppress the processing of facial stimuli. This blocking mechanism could help patients avoid overstimulation during social interactions.

Original languageEnglish
Article number140
JournalBMC Neuroscience
Publication statusPublished - 13.11.2013

Research Areas and Centers

  • Academic Focus: Center for Brain, Behavior and Metabolism (CBBM)


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