Background: Alexithymia, a personality trait characterized by difficulties in identifying and expressing their emotions despite having a range of emotional experiences, can impact individuals' stress coping mechanisms. While many studies have investigated brain functions associated with specific tasks in relation to emotion processing, research focusing on resting-state brain functions has been limited. Thus, the aim of this study was to investigate the relationship between alexithymia and brain function by analyzing arterial spin labeling (ASL) data obtained during the resting state.
Methods: A brain structural and functional imaging study was conducted on 42 healthy adult men and women using ASL and the 20-item Toronto Alexithymia Scale (TAS-20) questionnaire survey. Cerebral blood flow and functional connectivity values were calculated for regions of interest in the default mode network, saliency network, and central executive network from the ASL data. Correlation analysis was performed with TAS20 scores, and partial correlation analysis was conducted to control for anxiety and depression.
Results: The functional connectivity analysis revealed a negative correlation between the functional connectivity of the right insular cortex and left anterior cingulate cortex and the total score of TAS, as well as difficulty identifying feelings and difficulty describing feeling subscores, indicating that the higher the scores, the weaker the functional connectivity between these regions (T = -3.830, p = 0.0013, R = -0.5180). This correlation remained significant even after controlling for anxiety and depression using partial correlation analysis.
Conclusion: The present study revealed differences in the activity of the Saliency Network at rest as measured by ASL, which were independent of anxiety and depression, and varied depending on the severity of alexithymia. This functional change may underlie the neural basis of decreased emotional processing observed in alexithymia. These findings may contribute to the elucidation of the neural mechanisms of alexithymia, which can lead to social impairments, and suggest the usefulness of ASL measurement as a biomarker of alexithymia.
Keywords: Alexithymia; Anterior cingulate cortex; Arterial spin labeling; Insular cortex; Salience network; fMRI.
© 2023. The Japan Society of Physiological Anthropology.