Neural systems for orienting attention to the location of threat signals: An event-related fMRI study

Gilles Pourtois, Sophie Schwartz, Mohamed L. Seghier, François Lazeyras, Patrik Vuilleumier

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

124 Scopus citations


Attention may reflexively shift towards the location of perceived threats, but it is still unclear how these spatial biases recruit the distributed fronto-parietal cortical networks involved in other aspects of selective attention. We used event-related fMRI to determine how brain responses to a neutral visual target are influenced by the emotional expression of faces appearing at the same location during a covert orienting task. On each trial, two faces were briefly presented, one in each upper visual field (one neutral and one emotional, fearful or happy), followed by a unilateral target (a small horizontal or vertical bar) replacing one of the faces. Participants had to discriminate the target orientation, shown on the same (valid) or opposite (invalid) side as the emotional face. Trials with faces but no subsequent target (cue-only trials) were included to disentangle activation due to emotional cues from their effects on target detection. We found increased responses in bilateral temporo-parietal areas and right occipito-parietal cortex for fearful faces relative to happy faces, unrelated to the subsequent target and cueing validity. More critically, we found a selective modulation of intraparietal and orbitofrontal cortex for targets following an invalid fearful face, as well as an increased visual response in right lateral occipital cortex for targets following a valid fearful face. No such effects were observed with happy faces. These results demonstrate that fearful faces can act as exogenous cues by increasing sensory processing in extrastriate cortex for a subsequent target presented at the same location, but also produce a cost in disengaging towards another location by altering the response of IPS to invalidly cued targets. Neural mechanisms responsible for orienting attention towards emotional vs. non-emotional stimuli are thus partly shared in parietal and visual areas, but also partly distinct.

Original languageBritish English
Pages (from-to)920-933
Number of pages14
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2006


  • Covert spatial orienting
  • Dot-probe task
  • Emotion
  • Fearful face
  • fMRI
  • IPS
  • OFC
  • Spatial attention


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