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Rapid and automatic discrimination between facial expressions in the human brain

  • Poncet, Fanny
  • Baudouin, Jean Yves
  • Dzhelyova, Milena
  • Rossion, Bruno
  • Leleu, Arnaud
Publication Date
Jun 01, 2019
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Automatic responses to brief expression changes from a neutral face have been recently isolated in the human brain using fast periodic visual stimulation (FPVS) coupled with scalp electroencephalography (EEG). Based on these observations, here we isolate specific neural signatures for the rapid categorization of each of 5 basic expressions, i.e., when they are directly discriminated from all other facial expressions. Scalp EEG was recorded in 15 participants presented with pictures alternating at a rapid 6 Hz rate (i.e., one fixation/face, backward- and forward-masked). In different stimulation sequences, an expressive (angry, disgusted, happy, fearful, or sad) or a neutral face arose every 5 pictures (i.e., at 6/5 = 1.2 Hz), among pictures of the same individual expressing the other emotions randomly. Frequency-domain analysis indicated a robust (i.e., recorded in every individual participant) and objective (i.e., at the predefined 1.2 Hz frequency and its harmonics) expression-specific brain response over occipito-temporal sites for each emotion and neutrality. In this context of variable expressions, while neural responses to the different expressions (Anger, Disgust, Happiness, Sadness) were dissimilar qualitatively, a much larger specific signature for neutral faces as compared to facial expressions was found. Interestingly, Fear also elicited a strong contrasted response with other facial expressions, associated with a specific neural signature over ventral occipito-temporal sites. Collectively, these findings reveal that specific EEG signatures for different facial expressions can be isolated in the human brain, pointing to partially different neural substrates. In addition, they provide support for a strong and highly selective neural response to fear at the system-level, in line with the importance of this emotional expression for biological survival.

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