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The Neural Mechanisms of Integrated Social and Emotional Representation


Janine M. Simmons, M.D., Ph.D.
Division of Neuroscience & Basic Behavioral Science


This initiative aims to stimulate and support research investigating the neural circuits and dynamic patterns of brain activity involved in the perception, interpretation, and representation of multi-dimensional social and emotional cues.


Affective biases, deficiencies in interpreting social cues, and difficulties using social and emotional knowledge in context-appropriate ways are significant issues across mental disorders. For example, an inability to combine facial emotion and gaze cues appears to underlie deficiencies in joint attention that are common in autism spectrum disorder.1 Schizophrenia patients experience difficulties in maintaining eye contact, interpreting facial emotions, and integrating diverse perceptual cues into meaningful social-emotional knowledge.2 Individuals suffering from anxiety disorders display pathological generalization of perceptual and contextual cues.3 To understand the mechanisms contributing to such perturbed social-emotional processes, we need a better understanding of how activity across neural circuits affects the perception, interpretation, and representation of multi-dimensional social and emotional cues.

Strategic Objective 1 of the new NIMH Strategic Plan for Research, Define the Mechanisms of Complex Behaviors, emphasizes the need for basic research. NIMH’s basic neuroscience investment in complex social and affective behaviors has a strong foundation in several areas, including classical and operant conditioning, face-processing, emotion regulation, and the function of single brain regions in responses to unimodal stimuli. At the same time, an area of comparatively untapped opportunity is research on how the brain makes use of diverse multi-dimensional stimuli to generate, store, and adaptively utilize social and emotional percepts or knowledge. An emerging literature has highlighted the need for more in-depth work in this area and demonstrated the potential for investigators to identify the ways in which dynamic network processes regulate social-emotional encoding in the brain.4-9

This initiative would stimulate hypothesis-driven research to investigate the dynamic processes by which the brain selects multiple sources of external information and integrates external cues with ongoing internal states and previously acquired knowledge to create higher-level social and emotional representations. This initiative will encourage investigators to test the neurophysiological relevance of long-standing psychological models,10-14 and to extend beyond a region-based, modular, static and sequential view of social and emotional information processing. NIMH anticipates that this initiative will spur the use of state-of-the-art approaches that span biological scales, examine complex interactions across brain networks, and determine how precise spatiotemporal patterns of activity give rise to integrated, flexible social or emotional percepts, experiences, and actions.

This initiative aims to:

  1. Examine the interactions across neural circuits required for processing multi-dimensional social and emotional cues;
  2. Measure and model the neurophysiological temporal dynamics associated with formation and manipulation of social and emotional representations;
  3. Study changes in these networks with experience and across developmental trajectories; and
  4. Explore the ways in which dysfunction in these circuits and systems relates to social and emotional dimensions of behavior in psychiatric populations (i.e., the Research Domain Criteria project).

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1 Charbonneau G, Bertone A, Lepore F, Nassim M, Lassonde M, Mottron L, Collignon O. Neuropsychologia. 2013 Apr; 51(5):1002-10; Multilevel alterations in the processing of audio-visual emotion expressions in autism spectrum disorders.

2 Amminger GP, Schäfer MR, Papageorgiou K, Klier CM, Schlögelhofer M, Mossaheb N, Werneck-Rohrer S, Nelson B, McGorry PD. Schizophr Bull. 2012 Sep; 38(5):1030-9; Emotion recognition in individuals at clinical high-risk for schizophrenia.

3 3. Kheirbek MA, Klemenhagen KC, Sahay A, Hen R., Nat Neurosci. 2012 Dec; 15(12):1613-20. Neurogenesis and generalization: a new approach to stratify and treat anxiety disorders.

4 4. Grimsley JM, Hazlett EG, Wenstrup JJ. J Neurosci. 2013 Oct 30; 33(44):17538-48. Coding the meaning of sounds: contextual modulation of auditory responses in the basolateral amygdala.

5 Hitti FL, Siegelbaum SA. Nature. 2014 Apr 3; 508(7494):88-92; The hippocampal CA2 region is essential for social memory.

6 Peelen MV, Atkinson AP, Vuilleumier P.; J Neurosci. 2010 Jul 28; 30(30):10127-34.; Supramodal representations of perceived emotions in the human brain.

7 Perrodin C, Kayser C, Logothetis NK, Petkov CI. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2015 Jan 6; 112(1):273-8. Natural asynchronies in audiovisual communication signals regulate neuronal multisensory interactions in voice-sensitive cortex.

8 Pourtois G, Schettino A, Vuilleumier P. Biol Psychol. 2013 Mar; 92(3):492-512. Brain mechanisms for emotional influences on perception and attention: what is magic and what is not.

9 Skerry AE, Saxe R; J Neurosci. 2014 Nov 26; 34(48):15997-6008; A common neural code for perceived and inferred emotion.

10 Adolphs R. Behav Cogn Neurosci Rev. 2002 Mar;1(1):21-62. Recognizing Emotion from Facial Expressions: Psychological and Neurological Mechanisms.

11 Garrido-Vásquez P, Jessen S, Kotz SA. Social Neurosci., 2011, 6 (5–6), 515–536; Perception of emotion in psychiatric disorders: On the possible role of task, dynamics, and multimodality.

12 Haxby JV, Hoffman EA, Gobbini MI. Trends Cogn Sci. 2000 Jun;4(6):223-233. The distributed human neural system for face perception.

13 Phillips ML, Drevets WC, Rauch SL, Lane R.; Biol Psychiatry. 2003 Sep 1; 54(5):515-28. Neurobiology of emotion perception II: Implications for major psychiatric disorders.

14 Schirmer A, Kotz SA. Trends Cogn Sci. 2006 Jan;10(1):24-30. Beyond the right hemisphere: brain mechanisms mediating vocal emotional processing.