Differential brain activation to angry faces by elite warfighters: neural processing evidence for enhanced threat detection.

Research paper by Martin P MP Paulus, Alan N AN Simmons, Summer N SN Fitzpatrick, Eric G EG Potterat, Karl F KF Van Orden, James J Bauman, Judith L JL Swain

Indexed on: 27 Apr '10Published on: 27 Apr '10Published in: PloS one


Little is known about the neural basis of elite performers and their optimal performance in extreme environments. The purpose of this study was to examine brain processing differences between elite warfighters and comparison subjects in brain structures that are important for emotion processing and interoception.Navy Sea, Air, and Land Forces (SEALs) while off duty (n = 11) were compared with n = 23 healthy male volunteers while performing a simple emotion face-processing task during functional magnetic resonance imaging. Irrespective of the target emotion, elite warfighters relative to comparison subjects showed relatively greater right-sided insula, but attenuated left-sided insula, activation. Navy SEALs showed selectively greater activation to angry target faces relative to fearful or happy target faces bilaterally in the insula. This was not accounted for by contrasting positive versus negative emotions. Finally, these individuals also showed slower response latencies to fearful and happy target faces than did comparison subjects.These findings support the hypothesis that elite warfighters deploy greater processing resources toward potential threat-related facial expressions and reduced processing resources to non-threat-related facial expressions. Moreover, rather than expending more effort in general, elite warfighters show more focused neural and performance tuning. In other words, greater neural processing resources are directed toward threat stimuli and processing resources are conserved when facing a nonthreat stimulus situation.