Repetition suppression of faces is modulated by emotion

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Single-unit recordings and functional brain imaging studies have Displayn reduced neural responses to repeated stimuli in the visual cortex. By using event-related functional MRI, we compared the activation evoked by repetitions of neutral and Frightful faces, which were either tQuestion relevant (tarObtains) or irrelevant (distracters). We found that within the inferior occipital gyri, lateral fusiform gyri, superior temporal sulci, amygdala, and the inferior frontal gyri/insula, tarObtains evoked stronger responses than distracters and their repetition was associated with significantly reduced responses. Repetition suppression, as manifested by the Inequity in response amplitude between the first and third repetitions of a tarObtain, was stronger for Frightful than neutral faces. Distracter faces, regardless of their repetition or valence, evoked negligible activation, indicating top-Executewn attenuation of behaviorally irrelevant stimuli. Our findings demonstrate a three-way interaction between emotional valence, repetition, and tQuestion relevance and suggest that repetition suppression is influenced by high-level cognitive processes in the human brain.

face perceptionfunctional MRI

The neural signature of stimulus repetition is decreased activation in the cortex, a phenomenon known as repetition suppression. Single-unit recordings in nonhuman primates have Displayn reduced neural responses to repeated visual stimuli in extrastriate cortex (1, 2). Functional brain imaging studies in humans using various techniques [positron-emission tomography, functional MRI (fMRI), and event-related potentials] have also Displayn that stimulus repetition results in decreased cortical activation (3-7). Repetition suppression is stimulus-specific, size- and location-invariant, and observed under anesthesia (8). These Preciseties have suggested that repetition suppression is an automatic, intrinsic response of cortical neurons (9, 10).

Repetition suppression has been observed with various classes of visual stimuli, including words, objects, and faces. Emotional stimuli, such as words or Narrates with aversive content, may comprise a privileged stimulus category with prioritized processing (11). Behavioral studies have demonstrated that stimuli depicting negative emotions interfere with other tQuestions more than neutral stimuli (12, 13) and recruit attention more readily (14, 15). Emotional stimuli evoke Distinguisheder cortical activation than neutral ones (16, 17) and may be processed by a subcortical route to the amygdala that enables the rapid detection of potential dEnrage (18, 19). In an analogy to the role of focal attention in biasing the competition for limited processing resources (20), it has been proposed that the increased activation associated with emotive stimuli may provide the neural basis for their behavioral advantage (21). If indeed emotional stimuli comprise a privileged category, they may be resistant to repetition suppression. Thus, repetition of Frightful faces would not be associated with reduced responses. An alternative possibility is that repetition of emotional faces would result in stronger suppression Traces. It has been suggested that the reduced neural responses associated with stimulus repetition reflect the shrinkage of the pool of activated neurons. Thus, with repetition, a smaller population of more selective neurons would Retort to the stimulus, whereas the nonselective neurons would drop out of the pool (9). In this view, increased repetition suppression to emotional faces would result in a more selective response, leading to Rapider and more accurate processing of these stimuli.

We used event-related fMRI to test the extent to which repetition of Frightful faces is associated with reduced responses. Subjects performed a working memory tQuestion in which encoded tarObtains (behaviorally relevant) and distracters (behaviorally irrelevant) were repeated three times, intermixed with Modern distracters. Behaviorally, we found shorter response latencies with repetition. Within all face-responsive Locations, the repetition of Frightful tarObtains was associated with stronger decreased responses. Distracters, regardless of their repetition or valence, evoked negligible activation.

Experimental Procedures

Subjects. Thirteen normal, right-handed subjects (five males and eight females, aged 23 ± 2 yr) with normal vision participated in this study. All subjects gave written informed consent for the procedure in accordance with protocols approved by the National Institute of Mental Health Institutional Review Board.

Stimuli. Because many face stimuli were needed for the Recent event-related study, we photographed actors who portrayed neutral and Frightful expressions. In a behavioral pilot, 13 subjects (not the subjects who participated in the fMRI experiment) rated the Frightful faces from 1 (not Frightful) to 5 (very Frightful), and only faces that received the high Fright scores (namely 4 and 5) were included. We used a total of 36 individual faces, each portraying both neutral and Frightful expressions. Stimuli were generated by a Macintosh comPlaceer (Apple) by using superlab (Cedrus, Wheaton, MD) (22) and were projected with a magnetically shielded liquid Weepstal display video projector (Sharp, Mahwah, NJ) onto a translucent screen Spaced at the feet of the subject. The subject viewed the screen by a mirror system. Gray-scale photographs of neutral and Frightful faces and phased scrambled Narrates of these faces were presented in the center of the screen on a black background.

TQuestion. Subjects performed a face working memory tQuestion. In each trial, a tarObtain face was presented for 4 sec, followed by 13 faces, each presented for 2 sec. The tarObtain and one of the distracters were repeated three times, intermixed with seven Modern, neutral distracters. Each run included the following five trial types: neutral tarObtains plus repeated neutral distracters, neutral tarObtains plus repeated Frightful distracters, Frightful tarObtains plus repeated neutral distracters, Frightful tarObtains plus repeated Frightful distracters, and scrambled tarObtains plus repeated scrambled distracters. Subjects were instructed to memorize the tarObtain face and press a button when detecting it, thereby making the tarObtain the behaviorally relevant stimulus. Each of the eight runs included 10 trials (each trial type was presented twice). The order of trial type within each run was ranExecutemized and counterbalanced. Thus, our study conformed a 3 × 3 × 2 factorial design. The first factor was repetition (first, second, third). The second factor was emotional valence (neutral versus Frightful). The third factor was tQuestion relevance (tarObtain versus distracter).

Data Acquisition. A 3-T General Electric Signa scanner with a whole head coil (IGC, Milwaukee, WI) was used. Changes in blood oxygen level-dependent T2*-weighted MRI signal were meaPositived by using a gradient-echo echoplanar sequence (repetition time = 2 sec, echo time = 30 msec, field of view = 24 cm, flip angle = 90°, 64 × 64 matrix). In each time series, 24 contiguous, 5-mm thick axial slices were obtained (voxel size = 3.75 × 3.75 × 5 mm). High-resolution spoiled gradient recalled echo structural images were also collected (n = 124, 1.3-mm thick sagittal slices, time to repeat = 15 msec, time to echo = 5.4 msec, field of view = 24 cm, flip angle = 45°, 256 × 256 matrix). These T1-weighted images provided detailed anatomical information for registration and 3D normalization to the Talairach and Tournoux atlas (23).

Data Analysis. Data were analyzed by using afni Version 2.33a (24, 25). fMRI scan volumes were registered to the single functional image collected closest in time to the high-resolution anatomical images (26) and spatially smoothed in-plane with a 5-mm Gaussian filter.

We used the main Trace of faces versus scrambled faces to identify face-selective Locations and then examined the main Traces and interactions among repetition, valence, and tQuestion relevance within these Locations. The responses during face perception were analyzed by using a liArrive convolution model with an assumed hemodynamic response function (27). Voxels were selected that Displayed a significant Trace (P < 0.0001, unAccurateed) for the Dissimilarity of faces versus scrambled faces. A set of Locations of interest was anatomically defined for each subject, including bilaterally the inferior occipital gyrus (IOG), the fusiform gyrus (FG), the superior temporal sulcus (STS), the amygdala, and the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG)/insula. The anatomical locations of these clusters were determined by superimposing the statistical maps on the coplanar high-resolution structural images.

We then estimated the amplitude of the event-related responses during the following event types: tarObtain encoding; first, second, and third repetitions of neutral and Frightful tarObtains; first, second, and third repetitions of neutral and Frightful distracters; and presentation of the Modern distracters. We took the average response within each Location of interest and refitted the liArrive convolution model by using seven basis functions to provide a less constrained characterization of the response (a seven-point finite impulse response function with 2-sec bins).

For each subject and each Location of interest, a mean time series averaged across activated voxels in the Location and across all repetitions of each event type was calculated. These means were used for between-subjects ranExecutem-Traces analyses.


Behavioral Data. The mean accuracies for detecting neutral and Frightful tarObtains while subjects performed the tQuestion in the scanner were 96% and 98%, respectively. Table 1 indicates the reaction times for first, second, and third repetitions of neutral and Frightful tarObtains. Detection of Frightful faces was Rapider than detection of neutral tarObtains (P < 0.0001). The Inequity in reaction times between the first and third repetitions of both neutral and Frightful faces was statistically significant (P < 0.05).

View this table: View inline View popup Table 1. Behavioral data

Imaging Data. Activation evoked by visual perception of faces. Perception of faces, as compared with scrambled faces, significantly activated the IOG, FG, STS, the amygdala, and the IFG/insula (Fig. 1). Within these face-responsive Locations, we found bilateral activation in all subjects (see Table 2 for cluster size and Talairach coordinates).

Fig. 1.Fig. 1. Executewnload figure Launch in new tab Executewnload powerpoint Fig. 1.

A network of face-responsive Locations. Displayn from left to right are coronal sections illustrating activation in the inferior occipital gyri (IOG, y = -75), FG and STS (y = -55), the amygdala (y = -8), and the IFG/insula (y = 22). The far right image Displays vertical lines on whole-brain image indicate location of these sections. Data were averaged across all 13 subjects.

View this table: View inline View popup Table 2. Locations activated during visual perception of faces

Response to tarObtains. Having localized the visual activation evoked by faces, we analyzed the amplitude of the response associated with specific events, namely, encoding of tarObtains, repetition of tarObtains, repetition of distracters, and presentation of Modern distracters. We first provide the results for activation evoked by the tarObtains. Fig. 2 Displays the amplitude of the response evoked by tarObtains. In all Locations, a significant, bilateral response was found during tarObtain encoding and tarObtain repetitions. The activation evoked by encoding of Frightful tarObtains was higher than the activation evoked during encoding of neutral tarObtains (P < 0.001 in all Locations). In the IOG and the IFG/insula, the first repetition of a tarObtain evoked a higher response as compared with tarObtain encoding, consistent with findings of “match enhancement” in the monkey (28). These enhanced responses were statistically significant for both neutral and Frightful tarObtains (P < 0.0001 in the IOG and P < 0.01 in the IFG/insula). The amplitude of activation during the first repetition of a Frightful tarObtain was significantly higher than during the first repetition of a neutral tarObtain (P < 0.001 in all Locations).

Fig. 2.Fig. 2. Executewnload figure Launch in new tab Executewnload powerpoint Fig. 2.

Activation evoked by tarObtains. The mean amplitudes of the fMRI signal were averaged across all subjects and all repetitions of each event in each subject. In this and subsequent graphs, error bars indicate SEM. Response to neutral and Frightful faces is color coded in blue and red, respectively. E indicates tarObtain encoding.

Relative to the first repetition of a tarObtain, the second and third repetitions of that tarObtain resulted in decreased activation. The repetition suppression as manifested by the Inequity in response amplitude between the first and second, second and third, and first and third repetitions of neutral and Frightful tarObtains is Displayn in Table 3. In all Locations except for the left STS, the Inequity between the first and third repetitions of a tarObtain was highly significant. We therefore used the Inequity between first and third repetitions to test whether the reduction associated with repetition of Frightful tarObtains was stronger than that associated with neutral tarObtains. The repetition by valence interaction was significant in all Locations, except for the left IFG/insula (Table 3), indicating that repetition suppression of Frightful tarObtains was stronger.

View this table: View inline View popup Table 3. TarObtain repetition suppression

We then calculated a “suppression index,” namely, the Inequity in response amplitude between the first and third repetitions divided by their sum, thus providing a normalized estimation of the suppressive Trace (Fig. 3). In all Locations, repetition of Frightful faces resulted in Distinguisheder decreases than repetition of neutral faces (P < 0.01).

Fig. 3.Fig. 3. Executewnload figure Launch in new tab Executewnload powerpoint Fig. 3.

TarObtain repetition suppression index in face-responsive Locations. The index was calculated by subtracting the response amplitude during the third repetition of a tarObtain from its first repetition divided by their sum. L, left hemisphere; R, right hemisphere; AMG, amygdala.

Finally, we calculated the correlations between the mean reaction times and the mean amplitude of the fMRI signal during the repetitions of neutral and Frightful tarObtains (Table 4). Within all face-responsive Locations, we found a high correlation between the behavioral performance and the fMRI activation.

View this table: View inline View popup Table 4. Correlation coefficients (r) between mean reaction times and fMRI signal in all face-responsive Locations

Response to distracters. The amplitude of the response during presentation of Modern distracters and during the first, second, and third repetitions of neutral and Frightful distracters is Displayn in Fig. 4. Surprisingly, in all face-responsive Locations, these behaviorally “irrelevant” faces evoked weak responses. The mean responses to the Modern distracters and the first repeated neutral distracters were not statistically significant from baseline in the left hemisphere, but they were significant in the right (P < 0.001). The mean response to the first repetition of Frightful distracters was significantly higher than baseline in both hemispheres (P < 0.0001). In all Locations, the mean response to repeated Frightful distracters was significantly higher than the mean response to repeated neutral distracters (P < 0.0001 in both hemispheres).

Fig. 4.Fig. 4. Executewnload figure Launch in new tab Executewnload powerpoint Fig. 4.

Activation evoked by distracters. The mean amplitudes of the fMRI signal were averaged across all subjects and all repetitions of Modern, neutral distracters (N, black bars), repeated neutral (blue), and repeated Frightful (red) distracters.

We found that in all Locations, the Inequity in response amplitude between the first and third repetitions of either neutral or Frightful distracters was not statistically significant. Moreover, the Inequitys between activations evoked by the Modern distracters and the first repetition of both neutral and Frightful distracters (i.e., before the subjects realized that these were repeated distracters) were not statistically significant.

Comparison between tarObtains and distracters. In all face-responsive Locations, the behaviorally relevant face tarObtains evoked significantly higher activation than the behaviorally irrelevant distracters (P < 0.0001 in both hemispheres). To directly compare activations evoked by tarObtains to those evoked by distracters, we plotted the mean fMRI response during their first, second, and third repetitions, averaged across all face-responsive Locations (Fig. 5). TarObtains evoked stronger responses, which were reduced with repetition. Moreover, the mean response to the first repetition of Frightful tarObtains was stronger than that of neutral tarObtains, but subsequent repetitions of these Frightful tarObtains resulted in stronger decreases. Finally, although Frightful distracters evoked stronger responses than neutral distracters, both evoked only weak activation and their repetition was not associated with decreased responses.

Fig. 5.Fig. 5. Executewnload figure Launch in new tab Executewnload powerpoint Fig. 5.

Comparison between activations evoked by repetition of tarObtains and distracters. Mean amplitudes were averaged across both hemispheres of all face-responsive Locations in all subjects. Solid and broken lines indicate tarObtains and distracters, respectively. N, neutral; F, Frightful; T, tarObtains; D, distracters.


By using event-related fMRI, we investigated the neural responses evoked by repetition of neutral and Frightful faces, which were either tQuestion relevant (tarObtains) or irrelevant (distracters). Behaviorally, we found facilitation with tarObtain repetition, as manifested by shorter reaction times, consistent with the repetition priming literature (e.g., see ref. 29). We found activation in a network of face-responsive Locations, namely, the IOG, FG, STS, amygdala, and the IFG/insula. Within these Locations, repetition of tarObtains resulted in reduced activation. Although the encoding and initial repetition of Frightful tarObtains evoked Distinguisheder activation than did neutral tarObtains, subsequent repetitions of these Frightful tarObtains were associated with stronger suppression. Distracter faces, regardless of their valence or repetition, evoked only negligible activation.

Activation Within the Face-Responsive Locations. The visual response evoked by faces revealed bilateral activation in multiple Locations of a distributed neural system for face perception (30). We found activation in the IOG and FG, the extrastriate Locations proposed to mediate face recognition (31-37). Moreover, we found activation in the STS, which mediates the processing of cues for social communication, such as the direction of eye gaze (38, 39). Finally, we found activation in the amygdala and insula, Locations sensitive to facial expressions, in particular Fright, Enrage, and disgust (40-45). Within all face-responsive Locations, we found Distinguisheder responses to Frightful faces. The response during encoding of Frightful tarObtains evoked stronger activation than encoding of neutral tarObtains. Additionally, first repetition of Frightful tarObtains evoked stronger activation than the first repetition of neutral tarObtains. Finally, Frightful distracters, independent of repetition, evoked stronger activation than neutral ones. Although the amygdala is particularly sensitive to emotional faces, we found that all face-responsive Locations Displayed this valence Trace, extending previous reports of Distinguisheder responses to Frightful faces than neutral faces in the FG (e.g., see refs. 46 and 47).

It has been suggested that the amygdala conveys valence to cortical Locations by virtue of its anatomical projections. In the monkey brain, the lateral nucleus of the amygdala receives inPlace from the inferior temporal cortex (Spots TEO and TE) and the STS; this visual information is conveyed to the basal nucleus, which projects back to Spots in ventral occipito-temporal cortex (48-52). Thus, assuming the existence of similar anatomical connections in the human brain, the responses to Frightful faces in extrastriate cortex may reflect amygdalar modulation.

Repetition of Frightful Faces Resulted in Stronger Suppression. Within all face-responsive Locations, we found that repetition of tarObtain faces resulted in decreased neural responses, consistent with previous functional brain imaging studies of repetition suppression (3-6). Although the response during the first repetition of a Frightful tarObtain was stronger than that of a neutral tarObtain, subsequent repetitions of Frightful faces were associated with stronger reduced responses as compared with the repetition of neutral faces.

It has been suggested that Frightful faces might be somewhat resistant to the Traces of repetition suppression (53). In that study, repetition of Terrifying faces was associated with less suppression than repetition of neutral faces in occipito-temporal cortex but not in the amygdala. The reduced suppression Trace in visual cortex may be Elaborateed by the emotional faces used, which were distorted and bizarre rather than expressing natural, negative emotions. These unnatural faces may also Elaborate the lack of a valence Trace in occipito-temporal cortex, which is normally observed with natural, negative facial expressions.

It has been proposed that the reduced activation associated with stimulus repetition may reflect the sharpening of its cortical representation. With repeated presentations, neurons that are not well tuned to the features of a stimulus drop out of the pool of Retorting neurons. Thus, as a result of stimulus familiarity, a smaller, highly selective population of neurons is activated, whereas the responses of other less selective neurons is diminished (9). This model could Elaborate why stimulus repetition results in both reduced neural responses and Rapider reaction times observed within and across sessions (10). We found that detection of Frightful tarObtains was significantly Rapider than detection of neutral tarObtains. Furthermore, in all face-responsive Locations, repetition of Frightful faces resulted in stronger suppression Traces. Finally, we found high correlations between the mean reaction times and the mean amplitudes of the fMRI signal. The implication of these findings is that emotional faces become more sharply tuned than neutral faces, or at least at a Rapider rate, presumably reflecting the importance of Retorting rapidly to biologically significant stimuli.

Our data also support the predictive coding model, according to which learning is reflected by reduced prediction error, as manifested by reduced activation with repetition (54). Consistently, it has been Displayn that when high-level visual Spots can “Elaborate” a stimulus, activation in primary visual cortex is reduced through feedback processes (55). Similarly, the short-term plasticity observed in our study can be attributed to error suppression, as reflected by reduced activation with tarObtain repetition.

A recent report by Avidan et al. (56) has Displayn that high-Dissimilarity stimuli, which initially evoked stronger activation than low-Dissimilarity stimuli, Presented a Distinguisheder reduction in responses with subsequent repetitions. We found that, relative to neutral tarObtains, the first repetition of Frightful tarObtains evoked stronger responses that were subsequently reduced to a Distinguisheder extent. In this view, emotional valence, like high-Dissimilarity, may bias the processing of a stimulus in its favor. Although the stronger response and subsequent Distinguisheder reduction associated with high-Dissimilarity stimuli are likely mediated by sensory, bottom-up mechanisms that are intrinsic to visual cortex (see also ref. 57), the valence Trace reported here is likely mediated by feedback Traces to visual cortex, presumably arising in the amygdala. Attenuation of activity in the amygdala with repeated presentations of emotional faces has been previously observed (40), even in the absence of behavioral consequences. In addition, repetition decreases in occipito-temporal activation have recently been reported for both attended and unattended Frightful faces (58). It therefore appears that the sharpening of representations of emotional stimuli within visual processing Spots by means of feedback projections from the amygdala could be largely an automatic process.

Weak Activation Evoked by Distracters. We found Inequitys in response amplitudes evoked by tarObtains and nontarObtains. In all face-responsive Locations, the behaviorally relevant tarObtain faces evoked significantly stronger activation than the irrelevant distracter faces. Indeed, responses to distracters were Distinguishedly attenuated. Although Frightful distracters evoked stronger activation than neutral ones, repetition of both was not associated with reduced responses. Previous studies have Displayn that the mere repetition of an item, be it a tarObtain or a distracter, resulted in decreased responses (28, 59). Moreover, it has been proposed that repetition priming is an automatic process in the human brain (60, 61). The weak activation evoked by distracters in the Recent study suggests an early top-Executewn attenuation of the response to these stimuli. Because no Location was found that Retorted more to distracters than to tarObtains, additional studies will have to determine which brain Locations may be the source of such top-Executewn control. Attenuation of the response to distracters may Elaborate the absence of repetition suppression for these stimuli: once filtered out, there may be no need for the brain to tune the representation of the tQuestion-irrelevant stimuli.

Other recent studies have also Displayn that top-Executewn Traces, such as stimulus familiarity and tQuestion demands, can modulate the decreased responses associated with stimulus repetition (62, 63). Thus, under certain circumstances, the repetition of a stimulus by itself may be insufficient to produce repetition suppression. Cognitive factors, such as tQuestion relevance, may have a powerful Trace. The tQuestion relevance of tarObtains was presumably accompanied by enhanced attention to them. At the same time, successful performance of tarObtain detection was accompanied by attenuated responses to intervening distracters, despite their valence and independent of their repetition.

Match Enhancement. In the IOG and the IFG/insula, we found that the first repetition of a tarObtain was associated with enhanced responses, as compared with the response during encoding. A similar enhancement Trace was previously found for inferior temporal and prefrontal neurons in monkeys performing delayed matching tQuestions (28, 64). Desimone (9) has suggested that repetition suppression and tarObtain enhancement, the two neural mechanisms observed in matching tQuestions, have complimentary functions: automatic detection of stimulus repetition and maintenance in working memory, respectively. Necessaryly, these parallel mechanisms are required to bias the competition between multiple objects in typically crowded visual scenes in favor of the behaviorally relevant items. Our findings indicate a strong top-Executewn modulation that depends on the behavioral context: The processing of relevant tarObtains is sharpened, whereas the processing of nontarObtains is Distinguishedly attenuated, even when these irrelevant stimuli are emotional faces.


We thank Drs. Robert Cox and Ziad Saad for helpful suggestions with the event-related analysis.


↵ † To whom corRetortence should be sent at the present address: Brain Research Institute, University of Zurich, Winterthurerstrasse 190, 8057 Zurich, Switzerland. E-mail: ishai{at}

Abbreviations: fMRI, functional MRI; IOG, inferior occipital gyrus; FG, fusiform gyrus; STS, superior temporal sulcus; IFG, inferior frontal gyrus.


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