Fang Fang and Qian Wang:Rapid processing of invisible fearful faces in the human amygdala


Rapid detection of a threat or its symbol (e.g., fearful face), whether visible or invisible, is critical for human survival. This function is suggested to be enabled by a subcortical pathway to the amygdala independent of the cortex. However, conclusive electrophysiological evidence in humans is scarce. Here, we explored whether the amygdala can rapidly encode invisible fearful faces. We recorded intracranial electroencephalogram (iEEG) responses in the human (both sexes) amygdala to faces with fearful, happy, and neutral emotions rendered invisible by backward masking. We found that a short-latency intracranial event-related potential (iERP) in the amygdala, beginning 88 ms post-stimulus onset, was preferentially evoked by invisible fearful faces relative to invisible happy or neutral faces. The rapid iERP exhibited selectivity to the low spatial frequency (LSF) component of the fearful faces. Time-frequency iEEG analyses further identified a rapid amygdala response preferentially for LSF fearful faces at the low γ frequency band, beginning 45 ms post-stimulus onset. In contrast, these rapid responses to invisible fearful faces were absent in cortical regions, including early visual areas, the fusiform gyrus, and the parahippocampal gyrus. These findings provide direct evidence for the existence of a subcortical pathway specific for rapid fear detection in the amygdala and demonstrate that the subcortical pathway can function without conscious awareness and under minimal influence from cortical areas.

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