Although social withdrawal is a prominent symptom of sickness, the mechanisms associated with this behavioral change remain unclear. In animals, the amygdala is a key neural region involved in sickness-induced social withdrawal. Consistent with this, in humans, heightened amygdala activity to negative social cues is associated with social avoidance tendencies. Based on these findings, we investigated whether an experimental inflammatory challenge selectively increased amygdala activity to socially threatening images as well as whether this activity related to feelings of social disconnection. Thirty-nine participants were randomly assigned to receive either placebo or low-dose endotoxin, which increases inflammatory activity. Pro-inflammatory cytokines were assessed at 7 hourly time points via blood draws; self-reported feelings of social disconnection and physical sickness symptoms were assessed hourly as well. Two hours post-injection, participants underwent an fMRI procedure to assess amygdala reactivity during the presentation of socially threatening images (fear faces) as well as non-socially threatening images (guns), socially non-threatening images (happy faces), and non-social, non-threatening images (household objects). Endotoxin led to greater amygdala activity in response to socially threatening vs. all other types of images. No such differences were found for placebo participants. Additionally, increased amygdala activity in endotoxin participants during the viewing of socially vs. non-socially threatening images was associated with increased feelings of social disconnection. These findings highlight the amygdala as a neural region that may be important for sickness-induced social withdrawal. The implications of amygdalar involvement in sickness-induced social withdrawal are discussed.
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