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Kessler Foundation scientists link emotional processing deficits with white matter damage

Impairments in facial affect recognition associated with neuroimaging findings -- an important step toward understanding origins of emotional processing deficits after brain injury

Kessler Foundation


IMAGE: Dr. Genova is a senior research scientist in Neuropsychology & Neuroscience Research at Kessler Foundation. view more

Credit: Kessler Foundation

West Orange, NJ. April 7, 2015. Kessler Foundation researchers have linked the inability to recognize facial affect (emotion) with white matter damage after traumatic brain injury (TBI), an important first step toward understanding this emotional processing deficit. Their findings indicate a pattern of white matter damage and gray matter atrophy associated with this specific impairment of social cognition after TBI. The article, "Facial affect recognition linked to damage in specific white matter tracts in traumatic brain injury," was published in Social Neuroscience 2015;10(1):27-34 ( Authored by Helen Genova, PhD, Venkateswaran Rajagopalan, D. Eng., Nancy Chiaravalloti, PhD, John DeLuca, PhD, and Jeannie Lengenfelder, PhD, of Kessler Foundation and Allison Binder of the University of Massachusetts.

Individuals with brain injury experience deficits in emotional processing and social cognition, most notably the inability to recognize emotions expressed by facial features. Little is known about the underlying mechanisms of this deficit in facial affect recognition, which may contribute to social dysfunction. Understanding the cause of these deficits, as well as their manifestations, will support the development of effective interventions.

In this study, 42 people with moderate to severe TBI were compared with 23 controls for their ability to identify six emotions?happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear, and shame? when shown facial photographs (Facial Emotion Identification Test [FEIT]). Their responses on these facial affect recognition tasks were correlated with neuroimaging changes on diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), which shows the integrity of white matter tracts in the brain.

Performance on FEIT was worse in the TBI group compared with controls. In the TBI group, poor performance on FEIT was associated with lower values for white matter integrity and volume of gray matter as seen on DTI. "Recent studies have shown that there are impairments in the ability to recognize facial affect after TBI," said Dr. Genova, senior research scientist in Neuropsychology & Neuroscience Research at Kessler Foundation. "Using neuroimaging, we found that changes in white and gray matter contributed to failure to accurately identify the emotions expressed in the facial photographs in FEIT. This deficit may adversely affect relationships, hindering social functioning in the home, the community and the workplace. To address this problem, more research needs to focus on deficits in emotional processing, their impact on social functioning, and the added dimension of objective findings on neuroimaging."


This study was funded by the New Jersey Commission on Brain Injury Research (10-3218-BIR-E-0, CBIR13IRG026).

About TBI Research at Kessler Foundation

Nancy Chiaravalloti, PhD, is director of TBI Research and Neuropsychology & Neuroscience Research. Dr. Chiaravalloti is project director of the Northern New Jersey TBI System (NNJTBIS), a collaborative effort of Kessler Foundation, Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation, and local hospitals. John DeLuca, PhD is co-project director. NNJTBIS is one of 16 federally funded model systems that form a national comprehensive system of care, research, education and dissemination aimed at improving quality of life for people with TBI. NNJTBIS is supported by grant #H133A120030 from the National Institute on Independent Living & Disability & Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR). In addition to NIDRR and the Department of Defense, TBI research is funded by the New Jersey Commission on Brain Injury Research, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Defense, and Children's Specialized Hospital. Kessler researchers and clinicians have faculty appointments in the department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.

About Kessler Foundation

Kessler Foundation, a major nonprofit organization in the field of disability, is a global leader in rehabilitation research that seeks to improve cognition, mobility and long-term outcomes, including employment, for people with neurological disabilities caused by diseases and injuries of the brain and spinal cord. Kessler Foundation leads the nation in funding innovative programs that expand opportunities for employment for people with disabilities.

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