Beyond emotions: A meta-analysis of neural response within face processing system in social anxiety

Exp Biol Med (Maywood). 2016 Feb;241(3):225-37. doi: 10.1177/1535370215603514. Epub 2015 Sep 3.


Patients with social anxiety disorder (SAD) experience anxiety and avoidance in face-to-face interactions. We performed a meta-analysis of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies in SAD to provide a comprehensive understanding of the neural underpinnings of face perception in this disorder. To this purpose, we adopted an innovative approach, asking authors for unpublished data. This is a common procedure for behavioral meta-analyses, which, however has never been used in neuroimaging studies. We searched Pubmed with the key words "Social Anxiety AND faces" and "Social Phobia AND faces." Then, we selected those fMRI studies for which we were able to obtain data for the comparison between SAD and healthy controls (HC) in a face perception task, either from the published papers or from the authors themselves. In this way, we obtained 23 studies (totaling 449 SAD and 424 HC individuals). We identified significant clusters in which faces evoked a higher response in SAD in bilateral amygdala, globus pallidus, superior temporal sulcus, visual cortex, and prefrontal cortex. We also found a higher activity for HC in the lingual gyrus and in the posterior cingulate. Our findings show that altered neural response to face in SAD is not limited to emotional structures but involves a complex network. These results may have implications for the understanding of SAD pathophysiology, as they suggest that a dysfunctional face perception process may bias patient person-to-person interactions.

Keywords: Face perception; amygdala; anxiety; functional magnetic resonance imaging; meta-analysis; social phobia.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anxiety Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging*
  • Facial Recognition*
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Phobic Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Radiography