CONTACT: JENNIFER CRONIN
2130 Medical Laboratories
Iowa City IA 52242
(319) 335-9917; fax(319) 335-8034
Release: March 31, 2000
UI researchers identify area of brain involved in assessing emotions of
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- A frown, a smile, raised eyebrows, pursed lips -- facial
expressions can reveal to us a lot about how another person is feeling. But
just what enables us to make the connection between facial expressions and
For some time, researchers have known that the right hemisphere of the brain
was important to judge other people's emotions. Now, University of Iowa Health
Care investigators have identified specific areas of the brain that aid in
emotion assessment of facial expressions.
According to results of a UI study, right somatosensory-related cortices
may help people to "put themselves in other's shoes" and think about
how they would feel if they were making similar facial expressions. The UI
findings appear in the April 1 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.
Although the role of the amygdala in processing emotions has received considerable
attention in scientific study, until the UI investigation, the contribution
made by cortical regions within the right hemisphere of the brain had not
been well understood.
"Through our investigation, we have discovered some of the neural structures
important for empathy," said Ralph Adolphs, Ph.D., UI assistant professor
of neurology and lead author of the study. "The surprising finding here
is that damage to parts of the brain involved in perceiving one's own body
-- like the sensation of touch -- are also important to judge how other people
To come to their conclusions, Adolphs and his colleagues studied 108 patients
with focal brain lesions, using three different tasks that assessed the recognition
and naming of six basic emotions from facial expressions. The researchers
compared the results from the patients with brain damage to 30 control subjects
with no history of neurological or psychiatric impairments.
The main experiment involved rating the intensity of basic emotions expressed
by faces. All 108 subjects with brain damage and 18 of the control subjects
participated in the intensity test. Subjects were shown six blocks of the
same 36 facial expressions of basic emotions (six faces of happiness, surprise,
fear, anger, disgust and sadness). For each block of the 36 faces, subjects
were asked to rate all the faces with respect to the intensity of one of the
six basic emotions.
The UI researchers found that subjects who had damage to particular regions
of the cortex in the right side of their brains were no longer able to judge,
from looking at facial expressions, how other people would feel. The specific
regions of the cortex were those parts of the brain that normally process
somatosensory information -- perception of touch, pain, temperature and other
These results are important because they clearly demonstrate for the first
time that perception of one's body state -- "feeling" -- is an essential
component of processing emotions, Adolphs said. Furthermore, the findings
show that judging how other people feel also draws upon the same mechanism.
"To figure out how someone else feels -- for example, from looking
at their face -- requires us to imagine what it would feel like if we made
that same face," Adolphs said.
This process of imagining a feeling uses the same somatosensory brain structures
that people use when they feel their own body, or their own emotional states.
"Our findings help us to understand the structures important for emotion
recognition in humans," Adolphs said. "The right somatosensory-related
cortices appear to be indispensable for retrieving knowledge about the emotions
signaled by facial expressions." In addition to Adolphs, the other investigators
from the UI department of neurology involved in this study included Antonio
Damasio, M.D., professor and head of the department; Hanna Damasio, M.D.,
professor; Daniel Tranel, Ph.D., professor of neurology and psychology; and
Greg Cooper, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor.
The research was supported by a National Institute of Neurological Disorders
and Stroke program project grant, an award from the National Institute of
Mental Health, and research fellowships from the Sloan Foundation and the
University of Iowa Health Care describes the partnership between the
UI College of Medicine and the UI Hospitals and Clinics and the patient care,
medical education and research programs and services they provide.