Neural activation in the "reward circuit" shows a nonlinear response to facial attractiveness

Soc Neurosci. 2010;5(3):320-34. doi: 10.1080/17470911003619916. Epub 2010 Mar 10.


Positive behavioral responses to attractive faces have led neuroscientists to investigate underlying neural mechanisms in a "reward circuit" that includes brain regions innervated by dopamine pathways. Using male faces ranging from attractive to extremely unattractive, disfigured ones, this study is the first to demonstrate heightened responses to both rewarding and aversive faces in numerous areas of this putative reward circuit. Parametric analyses employing orthogonal linear and nonlinear regressors revealed positive nonlinear effects in anterior cingulate cortex, lateral orbital frontal cortex (LOFC), striatum (nucleus accumbens, caudate, putamen), and ventral tegmental area, in addition to replicating previously documented linear effects in medial orbital frontal cortex (MOFC) and LOFC and nonlinear effects in amygdala and MOFC. The widespread nonlinear responses are consistent with single cell recordings in animals showing responses to both rewarding and aversive stimuli, and with some human fMRI investigations of non-face stimuli. They indicate that the reward circuit does not process face valence with any simple dissociation of function across structures. Perceiver gender modulated some responses to our male faces: Women showed stronger linear effects, and men showed stronger nonlinear effects, which may have functional implications. Our discovery of nonlinear responses to attractiveness throughout the reward circuit echoes the history of amygdala research: Early work indicated a linear response to threatening stimuli, including faces; later work also revealed a nonlinear response with heightened activation to affectively salient stimuli regardless of valence. The challenge remains to determine how such dual coding influences feelings, such as pleasure and pain, and guides goal-related behavioral responses, such as approach and avoidance.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / blood supply
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Face*
  • Facial Expression
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted / methods
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Male
  • Nerve Net / blood supply
  • Nerve Net / physiology
  • Nonlinear Dynamics*
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual / physiology
  • Pleasure / physiology*
  • Reward*
  • Sex Factors
  • Young Adult


  • Oxygen