Prefrontal Brain Activation During Emotional Processing: A Functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy Study (fNIRS)

Evelyn Glotzbach1, Andreas Mühlberger1, Kathrin Gschwendtner2, Andreas J Fallgatter3, Paul Pauli1, Martin J Herrmann*, 2
1 Department of Psychology, University of Würzburg, Marcusstr. 9-11, 97070 Würzburg, Germany
2 Department of Psychiatry, Psychosomatics and Psychotherapy, University of Würzburg, Füchsleinstr. 15, 97080 Würzburg, Germany
3 Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, University of Tübingen, Osianderstraße 24, 72076 Tübingen

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* Address correspondence to this author at the Department of Psychiatry, Psychosomatics and Psychotherapy, Füchsleinstr. 15, 97080 Würzburg, Germany; Tel: +49 931 20176650; Fax: +49 931 20177550; E-Mail:


The limbic system and especially the amygdala have been identified as key structures in emotion induction and regulation. Recently research has additionally focused on the influence of prefrontal areas on emotion processing in the limbic system and the amygdala. Results from fMRI studies indicate that the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is involved not only in emotion induction but also in emotion regulation. However, studies using fNIRS only report prefrontal brain activation during emotion induction. So far it lacks the attempt to compare emotion induction and emotion regulation with regard to prefrontal activation measured with fNIRS, to exclude the possibility that the reported prefrontal brain activation in fNIRS studies are mainly caused by automatic emotion regulation processes. Therefore this work tried to distinguish emotion induction from regulation via fNIRS of the prefrontal cortex. 20 healthy women viewed neutral pictures as a baseline condition, fearful pictures as induction condition and reappraised fearful pictures as regulation condition in randomized order. As predicted, the view-fearful condition led to higher arousal ratings than the view-neutral condition with the reappraise-fearful condition in between. For the fNIRS results the induction condition showed an activation of the bilateral PFC compared to the baseline condition (viewing neutral). The regulation condition showed an activation only of the left PFC compared to the baseline condition, although the direct comparison between induction and regulation condition revealed no significant difference in brain activation. Therefore our study underscores the results of previous fNIRS studies showing prefrontal brain activation during emotion induction and rejects the hypothesis that this prefrontal brain activation might only be a result of automatic emotion regulation processes.

Keywords:: fNIRS, Emotional processing, emotional regulation.