Objectives: Unilateral mesial temporal lobe epilepsy (MTLE) has been associated with impaired recognition of emotional facial expressions. Correspondingly, imaging studies showed decreased activity of the amygdala and cortical face processing regions in response to emotional faces. However, functional connectivity among regions involved in emotion perception has not been studied so far.
Methods: To address this, we examined intrinsic functional connectivity (FC) modulated by the perception of dynamic fearful faces among the amygdala and limbic, frontal, temporal and brainstem regions. Regions of interest were identified in an activation analysis by presenting a block-design with dynamic fearful faces and dynamic landscapes to 15 healthy individuals. This led to 10 predominately right-hemispheric regions. Functional connectivity between these regions during the perception of fearful faces was examined in drug-refractory patients with left- (n= 16) or right-sided (n= 17) MTLE, epilepsy patients with extratemporal seizure onset (n= 15) and a second group of 15 healthy controls.
Results: Healthy controls showed a widespread functional network modulated by the perception of fearful faces that encompassed bilateral amygdalae, limbic, cortical, subcortical and brainstem regions. In patients with left MTLE, a downsized network of frontal and temporal regions centered on the right amygdala was present. Patients with right MTLE showed almost no significant functional connectivity. A maintained network in the epilepsy control group indicates that findings in mesial temporal lobe epilepsy could not be explained by clinical factors such as seizures and antiepileptic medication.
Conclusion: Functional networks underlying facial emotion perception are considerably changed in left and right MTLE. Alterations are present for both hemispheres in either MTLE group, but are more pronounced in right MTLE. Disruption of the functional network architecture possibly contributes to deficits in facial emotion recognition frequently reported in MTLE.