Human faces are among the most salient visual stimuli and act both as socially and emotionally relevant signals. Faces and especially faces with emotional expression receive prioritized processing in the human brain and activate a distributed network of brain areas reflected, e.g., in enhanced oscillatory neuronal activity. However, an inconsistent picture emerged so far regarding neuronal oscillatory activity across different frequency-bands modulated by emotionally and socially relevant stimuli. The individual level of anxiety among healthy populations might be one explanation for these inconsistent findings. Therefore, we tested the hypothesis whether oscillatory neuronal activity is associated with individual anxiety levels during perception of faces with neutral and fearful facial expressions. We recorded neuronal activity using magnetoencephalography (MEG) in 27 healthy participants and determined their individual state anxiety levels. Images of human faces with neutral and fearful expressions, and physically matched visual control stimuli were presented while participants performed a simple color detection task. Spectral analyses revealed that face processing and in particular processing of fearful faces was characterized by enhanced neuronal activity in the theta- and gamma-band and decreased activity in the beta-band in early visual cortex and the fusiform gyrus (FFG). Moreover, the individuals' state anxiety levels correlated positively with the gamma-band response and negatively with the beta response in the FFG and the amygdala. Our results suggest that oscillatory neuronal activity plays an important role in affective face processing and is dependent on the individual level of state anxiety. Our work provides new insights on the role of oscillatory neuronal activity underlying processing of faces.
Keywords: Anxiety; Emotional faces; Fear; Magnetoencephalography; Neuronal oscillations.
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