Fear Spreading Across Senses: Visual Emotional Events Alter Cortical Responses to Touch, Audition, and Vision.
Domínguez-Borràs J., Rieger SW., Corradi-Dell'Acqua C., Neveu R., Vuilleumier P.
Attention and perception are potentiated for emotionally significant stimuli, promoting efficient reactivity and survival. But does such enhancement extend to stimuli simultaneously presented across different sensory modalities? We used functional magnetic resonance imaging in humans to examine the effects of visual emotional signals on concomitant sensory inputs in auditory, somatosensory, and visual modalities. First, we identified sensory areas responsive to task-irrelevant tones, touches, or flickers, presented bilaterally while participants attended to either a neutral or a fearful face. Then, we measured whether these responses were modulated by the emotional content of the face. Sensory responses in primary cortices were enhanced for auditory and tactile stimuli when these appeared with fearful faces, compared with neutral, but striate cortex responses to the visual stimuli were reduced in the left hemisphere, plausibly as a consequence of sensory competition. Finally, conjunction and functional connectivity analyses identified 2 distinct networks presumably responsible for these emotional modulatory processes, involving cingulate, insular, and orbitofrontal cortices for the increased sensory responses, and ventrolateral prefrontal cortex for the decreased sensory responses. These results suggest that emotion tunes the excitability of sensory systems across multiple modalities simultaneously, allowing the individual to adaptively process incoming inputs in a potentially threatening environment.