Abstract

Patients with Huntington's disease (HD) can show disproportionate impairments in recognizing facial signals of disgust, but the neural basis of this deficit remains unclear. Functional imaging studies have implicated the anterior insula in the ability to recognize disgust, but have identified other structures as well, including the basal ganglia. In view of variable insula and basal ganglia volume changes in HD, we used voxel-based morphometry to map regional variations in gray matter (GM) volume in participants carrying the mutation for HD, and correlated this with their performance on a test of facial emotion recognition for six basic emotions (disgust, fear, anger, happiness, sadness, surprise). The volume of the anteroventral insula was strongly correlated with performance on the disgust recognition task. The amygdala volume (bilaterally) correlated with the ability to recognize happy facial expressions. There was marked specificity of the regional correlations for the emotion involved. Recognition of other emotion expressions, or more general cognitive or motor performance as measured by a standardized rating scale, did not correlate with regional brain volume in this group. Control participants showed no effect for any measure. The strong linear correlations for disgust and happiness recognition imply direct involvement of the anterior insula in disgust appreciation, and a similar role for the amygdala in recognizing happy facial expressions. The absence of a significant correlation with the basal ganglia suggests a less critical role for these structures in disgust recognition than has previously been suggested. The findings also highlight the role of neurodegenerative diseases combined with statistical imaging techniques in elucidating the brain basis of behavior and cognition.

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