Neural circuitry of emotion regulation: Effects of appraisal, attention, and cortisol administration

Sean T. Ma, James L. Abelson, Go Okada, Stephan F. Taylor, Israel Liberzon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

40 Scopus citations


Psychosocial well-being requires effective regulation of emotional responding in context of threat or stress. Neuroimaging studies have focused on instructed, volitional regulation (e.g., reappraisal or distancing), largely ignoring implicit regulation that does not involve purposeful effort to alter emotional experience. These implicit processes may or may not involve the same neural pathways as explicit regulatory strategies. We examined the neurobiology of implicit emotional regulation processes and the impact of the stress hormone cortisol on these processes. Our study task employed composite pictures of faces and places to examine neural activity during implicit emotional processing (of emotional faces), while these responses were implicitly regulated by attention shift away from the emotionally evocative stimuli, and while subjects reflectively appraised their own emotional response to them. Subjects completed the task in an fMRI scanner after random assignment to receive placebo or hydrocortisone (HCT), an orally administered version of cortisol. Implicit emotional processing activated insula/IFG, dACC/dMPFC, midbrain and amygdala. With attention shifting, we saw diminished signal in emotion generating/response regions (e.g., amygdala) and increased activations in task specific attention regions like parahippocampus. With appraisal of emotions, we observed robust activations in medial prefrontal areas, where activation is also seen in instructed reappraisal studies. We observed no main effects of HCT administration on brain, but males and females showed opposing neural effects in prefrontal areas. The data suggest that different types of emotion regulation utilize overlapping circuits, but with some strategy specific activation. Further study of the dimorphic sex response to cortisol is needed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)437-451
Number of pages15
JournalCognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 1 2017


  • Attention
  • Cognitive control
  • Emotion
  • Prefrontal cortex
  • Regulation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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