Blunted feelings: Alexithymia is associated with a diminished neural response to speech prosody

  • Goerlich-Dobre K
  • Witteman J
  • Schiller N
 et al. 
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How we perceive emotional signals from our environment depends on our personality. Alexithymia, a personality trait characterized by difficulties in emotion regulation has been linked to aberrant brain activity for visual emotional processing. Whether alexithymia also affects the brain's perception of emotional speech prosody is currently unknown. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging to investigate the impact of alexithymia on hemodynamic activity of three a priori regions of the prosody network: the superior temporal gyrus (STG), the inferior frontal gyrus and the amygdala. Twenty-two subjects performed an explicit task (emotional prosody categorization) and an implicit task (metrical stress evaluation) on the same prosodic stimuli. Irrespective of task, alexithymia was associated with a blunted response of the right STG and the bilateral amygdalae to angry, surprised and neutral prosody. Individuals with difficulty describing feelings deactivated the left STG and the bilateral amygdalae to a lesser extent in response to angry compared with neutral prosody, suggesting that they perceived angry prosody as relatively more salient than neutral prosody. In conclusion, alexithymia may be associated with a generally blunted neural response to speech prosody. Such restricted prosodic processing may contribute to problems in social communication associated with this personality trait.

Author-supplied keywords

  • Alexithymia
  • Amygdala
  • Emotional prosody
  • Inferior frontal gyrus
  • Superior temporal gyrus

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  • Niels SchillerLeiden University Centre for Linguistics

  • Katharina Sophia Goerlich-Dobre

  • Jurriaan Witteman

  • Vincent J.P. van Heuven

  • André Aleman

  • Sander Martens

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