First published: 21 November 2020 https://doi.org/10.1111/acer.14519
Although deficits in the interpretation of affective facial expressions have been described clinically and in behavioral studies of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), effects of prenatal alcohol exposure on the neural networks that mediate affective appraisal have not previously been examined.
We administered a nonverbal event‐related fMRI affective appraisal paradigm to 64 children (mean age=12.5 yr; 18 with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) or partial FAS (PFAS), 18 non‐syndromal heavily exposed (HE), and 28 controls). Happy, sad, angry, fearful, and neutral faces and pixelated control images were presented sequentially in a randomized order. The child indicated whether the currently displayed face showed the same or different affect as the previous one.
Data from whole brain analyses showed that all groups activated the appropriate face processing neural networks. Region of interest analyses indicated that, compared to HE and control children, the FAS/PFAS group exhibited greater blood oxygenation level dependent (BOLD) signal changes when processing neutral faces than pixelated images in two regions that form part of the visual‐sensory social brain network, which plays an important role in the initial processing of facial affect. By contrast, BOLD signal when processing angry faces was smaller for the FAS/PFAS group in a region involved in the processing of facial identity and facial expressions and in a region involved in the recognition and selection of behavioral responses to aggressive behavior.
These findings of greater BOLD signal in the FAS/PFAS group in response to neutral faces suggest less efficient neural processing of more difficult to interpret emotions, and the weaker BOLD response to angry faces suggests altered processing of angry stimuli. Although behavioral performance did not differ in this relatively simple affective appraisal task, these data suggest that in children with FAS and PFAS the appraisal of neutral affect and anger is likely to be more effortful in more challenging and dynamic social contexts.
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