Facial emotion processing in patients with social anxiety disorder and Williams–Beuren syndrome: an fMRI study

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Abstract

Background

Social anxiety disorder (SAD) and Williams–Beuren syndrome (WBS) are 2 conditions with major differences in terms of genetics, development and cognitive profiles. Both conditions are associated with compromised abilities in overlapping areas, including social approach, processing of social emotional cues and gaze behaviour, and to some extent they are associated with opposite behaviours in these domains. We examined common and distinct patterns of brain activation during a facial emotion processing paradigm in patients with SAD and WBS.

Methods

We examined patients with SAD and WBS and healthy controls matched by age and laterality using functional MRI during the processing of happy, fearful and angry faces.

Results

We included 20 patients with SAD and 20 with WBS as well as 20 matched controls in our study. Patients with SAD and WBS did not differ in the pattern of limbic activation. We observed differences in early visual areas of the face processing network in patients with WBS and differences in the cortical prefrontal regions involved in the top–down regulation of anxiety and in the fusiform gyrus for patients with SAD. Compared with those in the SAD and control groups, participants in the WBS group did not activate the right lateral inferior occipital cortex. In addition, compared with controls, patients with WBS hypoactivated the posterior primary visual cortex and showed significantly less deactivation in the right temporal operculum. Participants in the SAD group showed decreased prefrontal activation compared with those in the WBS and control groups. In addition, compared with controls, participants with SAD showed decreased fusiform activation. Participants with SAD and WBS also differed in the pattern of activation in the superior temporal gyrus, a region that has been linked to gaze processing.

Limitations

The results observed in the WBS group are limited by the IQ of the WBS sample; however, the specificity of findings suggests that the pattern of brain activation observed for WBS is more likely to reflect a neurobiological substrate rather than intellectual impairment per se.

Conclusion

Patients with SAD and WBS showed common and specific patterns of brain activation. Our results highlight the role of cortical regions during facial emotion processing in individuals with SAD and WBS.

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