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Transcranial magnetic stimulation reveals two functionally distinct stages of motor cortex involvement during perception of emotional body language

Research group Gazzola
Publication year 2015
Published in Brain Structure & Function
Authors V. Gazzola, Sara Borgomaneri, Alessio Avenanti,
The order of authors may deviate from the original publication due to temporary technical issues.

Studies indicate that perceiving emotional body language recruits fronto-parietal regions involved in action execution. However, the nature of such motor activation is unclear. Using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) we provide correlational and causative evidence of two distinct stages of motor cortex engagement during emotion perception. Participants observed pictures of body expressions and categorized them as happy, fearful or neutral while receiving TMS over the left or right motor cortex at 150 and 300 ms after picture onset. In the early phase (150 ms), we observed a reduction of excitability for happy and fearful emotional bodies that was specific to the right hemisphere and correlated with participants’ disposition to feel personal distress. This ‘orienting’ inhibitory response to emotional bodies was also paralleled by a general drop in categorization accuracy when stimulating the right but not the left motor cortex. Conversely, at 300 ms, greater excitability for negative, positive and neutral movements was found in both hemispheres. This later motor facilitation marginally correlated with participants’ tendency to assume the psychological perspectives of others and reflected simulation of the movement implied in the neutral and emotional body expressions. These findings highlight the motor system’s involvement during perception of emotional bodies. They suggest that fast orienting reactions to emotional cues–reflecting neural processing necessary for visual perception–occur before motor features of the observed emotional expression are simulated in the motor system and that distinct empathic dispositions influence these two neural motor phenomena. Implications for theories of embodied simulation are discussed.

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