Date of Graduation


Document Type


Degree Type



School of Medicine



Committee Chair

Aina Puce

Committee Co-Chair

James Lewis


The amygdala has been labeled as a "detector of threat", evidenced by its heightened response to fearful faces in human neuroimaging studies. A critical element of the fearful face is an increase in eye white area, hypothesized to be crucial for the rapid detection of fear in another's face. Yet other facial expressions can also increase eye white area in a manner that is similar (a lateral shift in gaze) or identical (surprise) to fear. It is unknown if the amygdala can differentiate between these types of increases in eye white area and those that are specifically associated with fear when using only the eye region of the face. Furthermore, whether the fearful mouth can elicit an amygdala response when shown in isolation is unknown. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we found that the amygdala responded robustly to fearful eyes as well as eye stimuli that were ambiguous in nature. The fearful mouth, on the other hand, was unable to generate a significant response from the amygdala, however the happy condition elicited a slight response from the right amygdala, most likely due to the visual salience of the smile. We also observed a functional laterality between the two amygdalae in that the left amygdala responded only to fearful eyes while the right amygdala activated to any change in the eyes; the same laterality was also evident when eye stimuli were ambiguous in nature indicating that the left amygdala is more tuned to detect fear in the eyes while the right amygdala acts as a general detector of eye changes. This lends more evidence to the existence of parallel mechanisms for processing visual threat. Together, our results indicate that while the amygdala is primarily a detector of fearful faces, it has evolved to respond to other facial expressions that are also behaviorally relevant or potentially threatening to the viewer.