Emotional stimuli modulate activity in brain areas related to attention, perception, and movement. Similar increases in neural activity have been detected in the spinal cord, suggesting that this understudied component of the central nervous system is an important part of our emotional responses. To date, previous studies of emotion-dependent spinal cord activity have utilized long presentations of complex emotional scenes. The current study differs from this research by (1) examining whether emotional faces will lead to enhanced spinal cord activity and (2) testing whether these stimuli require conscious perception to influence neural responses. Fifteen healthy undergraduate participants completed six spinal functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) runs in which three one-minute blocks of fearful, angry, or neutral faces were interleaved with 40-s rest periods. In half of the runs, the faces were clearly visible while in the other half, the faces were displayed for only 17 ms. Spinal fMRI consisted of half-Fourier acquisition single-shot turbo spin-echo (HASTE) sequences targeting the cervical spinal cord. The results indicated that consciously perceived faces expressing anger elicited significantly more activity than fearful or neutral faces in ventral (motoric) regions of the cervical spinal cord. When stimuli were presented below the threshold of conscious awareness, neutral faces elicited significantly more activity than angry or fearful faces. Together, these data suggest that the emotional modulation of spinal cord activity is most impactful when the stimuli are consciously perceived and imply a potential threat toward the observer.
This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License
which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited