Affective ambiguity for a group recruits ventromedial prefrontal cortex

Neuroimage. 2006 Jan 15;29(2):655-61. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2005.07.040. Epub 2005 Aug 25.


Affective appraisal often involves processing complex and ambiguous stimuli, such as the mood of a group people. However, affective neuroimaging research often uses individual faces as stimuli when exploring the neural circuitry involved in social appraisal. Results from studies using single face paradigms may not generalize to settings where multiple faces are simultaneously processed. The goal of the current study was to use a novel task that presents groups of affective faces to probe the medial prefrontal cortex (PFC), a region that is critically involved in appraisal of ambiguous affective stimuli, in healthy volunteers. In the current study, 27 subjects performed the Wall of Faces (WOF) task in which multiple matrices of faces were briefly presented during functional MRI. Subjects were asked to decide whether there were more angry or happy faces (emotional decision) or whether there were more male or female faces (gender decision). In each condition, the array contained either an equal (ambiguous trials) or an unequal (unambiguous trials) distribution of one affect or gender. Ambiguous trials relative to unambiguous trials activated regions implicated in conflict monitoring and cognitive control, including the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), dorsolateral PFC, and posterior parietal cortex. When comparing ambiguous affective decisions with ambiguous gender decisions, the ventromedial PFC (including the ventral ACC) was significantly more active. This supports the dissociation of the ACC into dorsal cognitive and ventral affective divisions, and suggests that the ventromedial PFC may play a critical role in appraising affective tone in a complex display of multiple human faces.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Affect / physiology*
  • Anger
  • Facial Expression
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Sex Characteristics


  • Oxygen