In the eye of the beholder: Internally driven uncertainty of danger recruits the amygdala and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex

Michal Zaretsky, Avi Mendelsohn, Matti Mintz, Talma Hendler*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

31 Scopus citations


Interpretation of emotional context is a pivotal aspect of understanding social situations. A critical component of this process is assessment of danger levels in the surrounding, which may have a direct effect on the organism's survival. The limbic system has been implicated in mediating this assessment. In situations of uncertainty, the evaluation process may also call for greater involvement of prefrontal cortex for decision-making and planning of an appropriate behavioral response. In the following study, morphed face images depicting emotional expressions were used to examine brain correlates of subjective uncertainty and perceptual ambiguity regarding danger. Fear and neutral expressions of 20 faces were morphed, and each of the face videos was divided into three sequences of equal length representing three levels of objective certainty regarding the expressions neutral, fear, and ambiguous. Sixteen subjects were scanned in a 1.5-T scanner while viewing 60 x 6-sec video sequences and were asked to report their subjective certainty regarding the level of danger surrounding the face on a four-level scale combining definite/maybe and danger/no-danger values. The individual responses were recorded and used as the basis for a "subjective protocol" versus an "objective protocol." Significant activations of the amygdala, dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex were observed under the subjective protocol of internally driven uncertainty, but not under objective stimuli-based ambiguity. We suggest that this brain network is involved in generating subjective assessment of social affective cues. This study provides further support to the "relevance detector" theory of the amygdala and implicates its importance to behavior relying heavily on subjective assessment of danger, such as in the security domain context.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2263-2275
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2010


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