Face Processing in Major Depression: Pathology, Risk, and Resilience

Aberrant brain connectivity during emotional processing, especially within the fronto-limbic pathway, is one of the hallmarks of major depressive disorder (MDD). However, the methodological heterogeneity of previous studies made it difficult to determine the functional and etiological implications of specific alterations in brain connectivity. We previously reported alterations in psychophysiological interaction measures during emotional face processing, distinguishing depressive pathology from at-risk/resilient and healthy states. Here, we extended these findings by effective connectivity analyses in the same sample to establish a refined neural model of emotion processing in depression.

Thirty-seven patients with MDD, 45 first-degree relatives of patients with MDD and 97 healthy controls performed a face-matching task during functional magnetic resonance imaging. We used dynamic causal modeling to estimate task-dependent effective connectivity at the subject level. Parametric empirical Bayes was performed to quantify group differences in effective connectivity.

MDD patients showed decreased effective connectivity from the left amygdala and left lateral prefrontal cortex to the fusiform gyrus compared to relatives and controls, whereas patients and relatives showed decreased connectivity from the right orbitofrontal cortex to the left insula and from the left orbitofrontal cortex to the right fusiform gyrus compared to controls. Relatives showed increased connectivity from the anterior cingulate cortex to the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex compared to patients and controls.

Our results suggest that the depressive state alters top-down control of higher visual regions during face processing. Alterations in connectivity within the cognitive control network present potential risk or resilience mechanisms.