Master of Science, Eidgenossische Technische Hochschule (ETH Zurich) (2005)
Doctor of Philosophy, Universite De Geneve (2009)
Allan Reiss, Postdoctoral Faculty Sponsor
My research focuses on the normal as well as disturbed functioning of the human social brain in adults, adolescents and children. I am investigating many different aspects of social emotion processing, including elicitation, perception, expression, as well as regulation. Moreover, I am particularly interested in individual differences and how they shape social emotion processing. In so doing, I mainly refer to the developmental psychological framework of attachment theory.
Emotion Regulation (ER) includes different mechanisms aiming at volitionally modulating emotional responses, including cognitive re-evaluation (re-appraisal; REAP) or inhibition of emotion expression and behavior (expressive suppression; ESUP). However, despite the importance of these ER strategies, previous functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies have not sufficiently disentangled the specific neural impact of REAP versus ESUP on brain responses to different kinds of emotion-eliciting events. Moreover, although different effects have been reported for stimulus valence (positive vs. negative), no study has systematically investigated how ER may change emotional processing as a function of particular stimulus content variables (i.e., social vs. nonsocial). Our fMRI study directly compared brain activation to visual scenes during the use of different ER strategies, relative to a "natural" viewing condition, but also examined the effects of ER as a function of the social versus nonsocial content of scenes, in addition to their negative versus positive valence (by manipulating these factors orthogonally in a 2×2 factorial design). Our data revealed that several prefrontal cortical areas were differentially recruited during either REAP or ESUP, independent of the valence and content of images. In addition, selective modulations by either REAP or ESUP were found depending on the negative valence of scenes (medial fusiform gyrus, anterior insula, dmPFC), and on their nonsocial (middle insula) or social (bilateral amygdala, mPFC, posterior cingulate) significance. Furthermore, we observed a significant lateralization in the amygdala for the effect of the two different ER strategies, with a predominant modulation by REAP on the left side but by ESUP on the right side. Taken together, these results do not only highlight the distributed nature of neural changes induced by ER, but also reveal the specific impact of different strategies (REAP or ESUP), and the specific sites implicated by different dimensions of emotional information (social or negative).
View details for DOI 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2011.02.020
View details for PubMedID 21345342
Every day we encounter new people, interact with them, and form person impressions based on quick and automatic inferences from minimal contextual information. Previous studies have identified an extensive network of brain areas involved in familiar face recognition, but there is little evidence to date concerning the neural bases of negative vs. positive person impressions. In the present study, participants were repeatedly exposed to 16 unfamiliar face identities within a pseudo-interactive game context to generate a perception of either "friends" or "foes". Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was then performed during an old/new memory task to assess any difference in brain responses to these now familiar face identities, relative to unfamiliar faces. Importantly, whereas facial expressions were always emotional (either smiling or angry) during the encoding phase, they were always neutral during the memory task. Our results reveal that several brain regions involved in familiar face recognition, including fusiform cortex, posterior cingulate gyrus, and amygdala, plus additional areas involved in motivational control such as caudate and anterior cingulate cortex, were differentially modulated as a function of a previous encounter, and generally more activated when faces were perceived as "foes" rather than "friends". These findings underscore that a key dimension of social judgments, based on past impressions of who may be supportive or hostile, may lead to long-lasting effects on memory for faces and thus influence affective reactions to people during a subsequent encounter even in a different (neutral) context.
View details for DOI 10.1080/17470910902941793
View details for Web of Science ID 000269668500002
View details for PubMedID 19637101
Adult attachment style refers to individual personality traits that strongly influence emotional bonds and reactions to social partners. Behavioral research has shown that adult attachment style reflects profound differences in sensitivity to social signals of support or conflict, but the neural substrates underlying such differences remain unsettled. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we examined how the three classic prototypes of attachment style (secure, avoidant, anxious) modulate brain responses to facial expressions conveying either positive or negative feedback about task performance (either supportive or hostile) in a social game context. Activation of striatum and ventral tegmental area was enhanced to positive feedback signaled by a smiling face, but this was reduced in participants with avoidant attachment, indicating relative impassiveness to social reward. Conversely, a left amygdala response was evoked by angry faces associated with negative feedback, and correlated positively with anxious attachment, suggesting an increased sensitivity to social punishment. Secure attachment showed mirror effects in striatum and amygdala, but no other specific correlate. These results reveal a critical role for brain systems implicated in reward and threat processing in the biological underpinnings of adult attachment style, and provide new support to psychological models that have postulated two separate affective dimensions to explain these individual differences, centered on the ventral striatum and amygdala circuits, respectively. These findings also demonstrate that brain responses to face expressions are not driven by facial features alone but determined by the personal significance of expressions in current social context. By linking fundamental psychosocial dimensions of adult attachment with brain function, our results do not only corroborate their biological bases but also help understand their impact on behavior.
View details for DOI 10.1371/journal.pone.0002868
View details for Web of Science ID 000264366600024
View details for PubMedID 18682729
The prion protein Met129Val polymorphism has recently been related to human long-term memory with carriers of either the 129MM or the 129MV genotype recalling 17% more words than 129(VV) carriers at 24h following learning. Here, we sampled genotype differences in retrieval-related brain activity at 30min and 24h following learning. Furthermore, genotype groups were compared regarding grey matter concentrations and cognitive profiles. We used event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) during a word recognition task on 12 Met/Met carriers, 12 Val/Met carriers, and 12 Val/Val carriers. These groups were matched for retrieval performance, gender, age, education, and other memory-related genetic polymorphisms. Although retrieval performance was matched, Val carriers exhibited enhanced retrieval-related brain activity at 30min and 24h following learning. At both time lags, correlations between retrieval-related brain activity and retrieval success were negative for Val homozygotes (the more activity, the worse retrieval success), while correlations showed no significance or were positive for Met homozygotes and heterozygotes. These results suggest a less economic use of retrieval-related neural resources in Val relative to Met carriers. Furthermore, Val carriers exhibited higher neocortical grey matter concentrations compared to Met carriers. When controlling for grey matter concentration, genotype effects in retrieval-related brain activity remained significant. Val and Met carriers yielded comparable brain activations for correct rejections of non-studied words and for working memory, which speaks to the specificity of the genotype effect. Findings suggest that the prion protein Met129Val polymorphism affects neural plasticity following learning at a time-scale of minutes to hours.
View details for DOI 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2008.03.002
View details for Web of Science ID 000257641400013
View details for PubMedID 18423780