J Psychiatry Neurosci. 2023 Oct 19;48(5):E376-E389. doi: 10.1503/jpn.230065. Print 2023 Sep-Oct.
BACKGROUND: Human navigation of social interactions relies on the processing of emotion on faces. This meta-analysis aimed to produce an updated brain atlas of emotional face processing from whole-brain studies based on a single emotional face-viewing paradigm (PROSPERO CRD42022251548).
METHODS: We conducted a systematic literature search of Embase, MEDLINE and PsycINFO from May 2008 to October 2021. We used seed-based d mapping with permutation of subject images to conduct a quantitative meta-analysis of functional neuroimaging contrasts between emotional (e.g., angry, happy) and neutral faces. We conducted agglomerative hierarchical clustering of meta-analytic map contrasts of emotional faces relative to neutral faces. We investigated lateralization of emotional face processing.
RESULTS: From 5549 studies identified, 55 data sets (1489 healthy participants) met our inclusion criteria. Relative to neutral faces, we found extensive activation clusters by fearful faces in the right inferior temporal gyrus, right fusiform area, left putamen and amygdala, right parahippocampalgyrus and cerebellum; we found smaller activation clusters by angry faces in the right cerebellum and right middle temporal gyrus (MTG) and by disgusted faces in the left MTG. Happy and sad faces did not reach statistical significance. Clustering analyses showed similar activation patterns of fearful and angry faces; activation patterns of happy and sad faces showed the least correlation with other emotional faces. Emotional face processing was predominantly left-lateralized in the amygdala and anterior insula, and right-lateralized in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.
LIMITATIONS: Reliance on discretized effect sizes based on peak coordinate location instead of statistical brain maps, and the varying level of statistical threshold reporting from original studies, could lead to underdetection of smaller clusters of activation.
CONCLUSION: Processing of emotional faces appeared to be oriented toward identifying threats on faces, from highest (i.e., angry or fearful faces) to lowest level (i.e., happy or sad faces), with a more complex lateralization pattern than previously theorized. Emotional faces may be processed in latent grouping but organized by threat content rather than emotional valence.