Abstract

By testing the facial fear-recognition ability of 341 men in the general population, we show that 8.8% have deficits akin to those seen with acquired amygdala damage. Using psychological tests and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) we tested the hypothesis that poor fear recognition would predict deficits in other domains of social cognition and, in response to socially relevant stimuli, abnormal activation in brain regions that putatively reflect engagement of the “social brain.” On tests of “theory of mind” ability, 25 “low fear scorers” (LFS) performed significantly worse than 25 age- and IQ-matched “normal (good) fear scorers” (NFS). In fMRI, we compared evoked activity during a gender judgement task to neutral faces portraying different head and eye gaze orientations in 12 NFS and 12 LFS subjects. Despite identical between-group accuracy in gender discrimination, LFS demonstrated significantly reduced activation in amygdala, fusiform gyrus, and anterior superior temporal cortices when viewing faces with direct versus averted gaze. In a functional connectivity analysis, NFS show enhanced connectivity between the amygdala and anterior temporal cortex in the context of direct gaze; this enhanced coupling is absent in LFS. We suggest that important individual differences in social cognitive skills are expressed within the healthy male population, which appear to have a basis in a compromised neural system that underpins social information processing.

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