Emotion-perception interplay in the visual cortex: "The eyes follow the heart"

Talma Hendler, Pia Rotshtein, Uri Hadar

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Emotive aspects of stimuli have been shown to modulate perceptual thresholds. Lately, studies using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) showed that emotive aspects of visual stimuli activated not only canonical limbic regions, but also sensory areas in the cerebral cortex. However, it is still arguable to what extent such emotive, related activation in sensory areas of the cortex are affected by physical characteristic or attribute difference of stimuli. To manipulate valence of stimuli while keeping visual features largely unchanged, we took advantage of the Expressional Transfiguration (ET) of faces. In addition, to explore the sensitivity of high level visual regions, we compared repeated with unrepeated (i.e. different) stimuli presentations (fMR adaptation). Thus, the dynamics of brain responses was determined according to the relative signal reduction during "repeated" relative to "different" presentations ("adaptation ratio"). Our results showed, for the first time, that emotional valence produced significant differences in fMR adaptation, but not in overall levels of activation of lateral occipital complex (LOC). We then asked whether this emotion modulation on sensory cortex could be related to previous personal experience that attached negative attributes of stimuli. To clarify this, we investigated Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and non-PTSD veterans. PTSD is characterized by recurrent revival of trauma-related sensations. Such phenomena have been attributed to a disturbed processing of trauma-related stimuli, either at the perceptual level or at the cognitive level. We assumed that PTSD veterans would differ from non-PTSD veterans (who have similar combat experience) in their high order visual cortex responses to combat-related visual stimuli that are associated with their traumatic experience. An fMRI study measured the cerebral activation of subjects while viewing pictures with and without combat content, in "repeated" or "different" presentation conditions. The emotive effect on the visual cortex was found, again, only in the fMR-adaptation paradigm. Visual cortical regions showed significant differences between PTSD and non-PTSD veterans only in "repeated" presentations of trauma-related stimuli (i.e. combat). In these regions, PTSD veterans showed less decrease in signal with repeated presentations of the same combat-related stimuli. This finding points to the possibility that traumatic experience modulates brain activity at the level of sensory cortex itself.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)733-752
Number of pages20
JournalCellular and Molecular Neurobiology
Issue number6
StatePublished - 2001
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This study was funded by grants from Adams Super Center for Brain Research, Tel Aviv University, to U. Hadar and T. Hendler, and by the Israel Science Foundation (grant no. 38507) to T. Hendler. We thank Y. Yeshurun for essential help with running and analyzing the PTSD study, R. Malach for valuable ideas and comments, A. Bleich and T. Weizmann for referring the PTSD patients, I. Levy for her help with the retinotopic mapping, M. Harel for help with the brain flattening, D. Ben Bashat for her physicist’s insights, and I. Kahn for his homemade software. Finally, we are grateful to all the subjects and especially to the PTSD veterans who volunteered to participate in the various experiments.


  • Emotional modulation
  • Emotional valence
  • High order visual cortex fMRI
  • PTSD
  • Traumatic experience

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience
  • Cell Biology


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