RESEARCH ARTICLEOpen Access
Culture but not gender modulates amygdala
activation during explicit emotion recognition
Birgit Derntl1,2,3, Ute Habel1,3, Simon Robinson1,4, Christian Windischberger1,4, Ilse Kryspin-Exner2, Ruben C Gur5
and Ewald Moser1,4,5*
Background: Mounting evidence indicates that humans have significant difficulties in understanding emotional
expressions from individuals of different ethnic backgrounds, leading to reduced recognition accuracy and stronger
amygdala activation. However, the impact of gender on the behavioral and neural reactions during the initial phase
of cultural assimilation has not been addressed. Therefore, we investigated 24 Asians students (12 females) and 24
age-matched European students (12 females) during an explicit emotion recognition task, using Caucasian facial
expressions only, on a high-field MRI scanner.
Results: Analysis of functional data revealed bilateral amygdala activation to emotional expressions in Asian and
European subjects. However, in the Asian sample, a stronger response of the amygdala emerged and was paralleled
by reduced recognition accuracy, particularly for angry male faces. Moreover, no significant gender difference
emerged. We also observed a significant inverse correlation between duration of stay and amygdala activation.
Conclusion: In this study we investigated the “alien-effect” as an initial problem during cultural assimilation and
examined this effect on a behavioral and neural level. This study has revealed bilateral amygdala activation to
emotional expressions in Asian and European females and males. In the Asian sample, a stronger response of the
amygdala bilaterally was observed and this was paralleled by reduced performance, especially for anger and disgust
depicted by male expressions. However, no gender difference occurred. Taken together, while gender exerts only a
subtle effect, culture and duration of stay as well as gender of poser are shown to be relevant factors for emotion
processing, influencing not only behavioral but also neural responses in female and male immigrants.
Keywords: Culture, Gender, Emotion, Amygdala, fMRI
Within the last decade the interdisciplinary field of cul-
tural neuroscience investigating interrelations among
culture, mind and the brain has increased tremendously
cf. . According to Chiao and Ambady , the main
goal of cultural neuroscience is to investigate how much
of the cultural variation observable in human behavior is
traceable to cultural variation, including the biological
and neural levels. Previous studies reported cultural dif-
ferences in neural activation for a variety of cognitive
functions including picture encoding , voting behavior
, empathy [5,6], and self-representation [7,8].
Broad consensus exists that culture also asserts a sig-
nificant impact on the neural correlates of face proces-
sing, particularly regarding activation of the amygdala,
mostly reporting stronger or sustained activation to out-
group faces e.g., [4,9-12]; for review see [1,13,14]. Emo-
tional expressions (i.e., happy and fearful) have rarely
been used in fMRI studies addressing culture effects, but
play a special role in emotion processing: Moriguchi
et al.  showed differences in the neural processing of
fearful faces between Caucasian and Japanese subjects,
with higher activation of the left amygdala in Caucasians.
Chiao et al.  presented emotional expressions of
Japanese and Caucasian actors to Japanese and Cauca-
sian Americans and observed significantly elevated
amygdala response to in-group expressions of fear in
both groups, suggesting a specific sensitivity of the
amygdala to optimally respond to facial expressions of
* Correspondence: firstname.lastname@example.org
1MR Centre of Excellence, Medical University of Vienna, Vienna, Austria
4Centre for Medical Physics and Biomedical Engineering, Medical University
of Vienna, Vienna, Austria
Full list of author information is available at the end of the article
© 2012 Derntl et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative
Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Derntl et al. BMC Neuroscience 2012, 13:54
fear specific to one’s own cultural group. Recently,
Adams et al.  investigated the effect of direct vs.
averted eye gaze during processing of fearful Caucasian
and Japanese faces in Caucasian American and Japanese
students. They observed elevated amygdala activation
during the averted vs. direct gaze when expressions were
posed by in-group posers, while out-group posers elicited
stronger amygdala activation during direct vs. averted
gaze. These findings reveal a meaningful role of culture
in the processing of eye gaze and emotion, and highlight
their interactive influences in neural processing. How-
ever, gender differences and the impact of gender
of poser werenot addressed
although mixed samples were investigated and mixed
Recently we reported bilateral amygdala response of
Asian males and matched European Caucasian subjects
to Caucasian emotional expressions . We observed
significantly stronger amygdala activation in Asian males
that was inversely correlated with duration of stay.
Moreover, a decreased recognition rate of disgust was
demonstrated, probably indicating initial problems with
a difficult emotion that may be shaped to a greater
extent by cultural influences than the other basic emo-
tions. As we only examined male participants, analysis of
gender-by-culture interactions on amygdala response
was not possible.
Gender differences in the activation of the amygdala
during facial emotion processing have been documented
frequently, albeit with findings being extremely hetero-
geneous: some studies showed stronger activation in
females e.g., [19-21], some in males e.g., [22-24], and
some studies report no significant activation difference
e.g., [25-28]. In sum, these inconsistencies in the level
of amygdala activation may be due to the emotions
employed (e.g., stimuli, task design, MR-methods, etc.)
and results from a recent meta-analysis across 105 fMRI
studies  point to a stronger activation of the right
amygdala during facial emotion processing in males.
However, studies specifically addressing the interaction
of culture and gender on amygdala activation during
emotion processing are still missing. More generally,
none of the previous neuroimaging studies exploring
though most relied on a mixed sample or used mixed
Therefore, in the present study behavioral performance
and amygdala activation were examined during an
explicit emotion recognition task in female and male
Asian immigrants (i.e., exchange students with a short
residence time in Austria) and female and male Cauca-
sian Europeans (Caucasian Austrians), allowing investi-
gation of initial difficulties in emotion identification,
in the methodology
their possible impact on amygdala response and analysis
of potential gender-by-culture interactions regarding be-
havioral performance as well as neural activation
Based on previous findings e.g. [18,30-32], we hypothe-
However, according to findings on cultural differences in
emotion processing behavior: e.g. [33-35]; neural corre-
lates: e.g., [16,18], we posited a significant impact of eth-
nic group on behavioral and neural responses that
affects the amygdala: we hypothesized stronger amygdala
activation in the female Asian sample as they were out-
group to the ethnic group of posers presented (i.e., Cau-
casians). Considering previous results on the significant
effect of duration of stay on emotion recognition per-
formance  and amygdala activation in male immi-
grants , we also expected a significant association
between duration of stay and behavioral performance
and amygdala activation in Asian females. Moreover, we
aimed at further exploring the impact of gender and cul-
ture on amygdala activation, as previous studies, men-
tioned above, reported inconsistencies or did not
address this issue.
Emotion recognition accuracy was 77.4% (SD=18.5) on
average for Asian and 90.8% (SD=3.8) for European
subjects. The repeated measures ANOVA revealed a sig-
nificant emotion effect,
η²=.175, with highest accuracy for fearful expressions
and lowest performance for disgust, a significant ethnic
group effect, F(1,44)=15.294, p<.001, η²=.258, with
better performance of the Europeans, a significant gen-
der of poser effect, F(1,44)=6.715, p=.013, η²=.132,
with higher scores for female posers, but no significant
gender effect, F(1,44)=2.339, p=.133, ns. Moreover, we
observed a significant emotion-by-ethnic group inter-
action, F(5,220)=6.690, p<.001, η²=.132, a significant
emotion-by-gender of poser interaction, F(5,220)=9.506,
p<.001, η²=.178, and a significant emotion-by-gender
of poser-by-ethnic group interaction, F(5,220)=6.915,
p<.001, η²=.136. No further interaction reached signifi-
cance (all p-values>.154).
Disentangling the significant emotion-by-ethnic group
interaction, we observed significant differences for anger
(p<.001) and disgust (p<.001) that even remained sig-
nificant after Bonferroni correction, indicating lower per-
formance of Asians. Post-hoc analysis of the significant
emotion-by-gender of poser interaction revealed that
angry and disgusted expressions were better recognized
in male posers (both p<.001) while fear was more ac-
curately recognized in female posers (p=.009). For
the other expressions no significant effect occurred
Derntl et al. BMC Neuroscience 2012, 13:54
Page 2 of 11
(all p>.150). Looking at the three-way interaction
noticed several significant differences, however after
Bonferroni correction only those for female and male
anger (both p<.001) as well as female and male disgust
(female: p<.001; male: p=.001) remained significant indi-
cating lower performance in the Asian sample.
Reaction times were 2.3 s (SD=0.4 s) on average for
Asians and 2.2 s (SD=0.4 s) for Europeans. Analysis of
reaction times revealed a significant emotion effect, F
(5,220)=20.737, p<.001, η².=.320, with fastest response
times to happy expressions, no significant ethnic group
effect, F(1,44)=2.712, p=.107, no significant gender of
poser effect, F(1,44)=0.065, p=.800, and no significant
gender effect, F(1,44)=1.735, p=.195. However, a signifi-
p<.001, η²=.155, and a significant emotion-by-gender
of poser-by-ethnic group interaction, F(5,220)=8.690,
p<.001, η²=.175, occurred. All other interactions were
not significant (all p>.325).
Figure 1 illustrates emotion recognition accuracy for
Asians and Europeans.
Correlation analysis revealed neither a significant asso-
ciation between recognition performance and duration
of stay, r(22)=0.245, p=.112, nor between reaction time
and duration of stay, r(22)=0.018, p=.423.
Separate group analyses for Asian and European subjects
showed bilateral amygdala activation to all presented
emotions and neutral expressions, and direct comparison
between emotional vs. neutral expressions revealed
significantly stronger amygdala response to emotional
faces. Besides amygdala activation, responses of bilateral
fusiform gyrus, inferior occipital and frontal gyri, inferior
and medial temporal regions, hippocampus and parahip-
pocampal gyrus as well as brainstem and cerebellum
emerged for all emotions and neutral expressions for
Asians and Europeans, respectively (see Figure 2 and
Table 1 for details). Regarding direct comparisons
(Asians vs. Europeans, Females vs. Males), several differ-
ences occurred including the amygdala, although none of
these survived an FDR corrected threshold.
The ROI analysis including the contrast estimates emo-
tion>neutral for female and male posers, demonstrated
a significant main effect of ethnic group, F(1,44)=9.141,
p=.004, η²=.175, with stronger activation in Asians but
no significant effect of gender, F(1,44)=0.197, p=.659,
nor gender-by-ethnic group interaction, F(1,44)=0.043,
p=.837. Moreover, a significant gender of poser effect, F
(1,44)=5.332, p=.026, η²=.110, and a significant gender
of poser-by-ethnic group interaction, F(1,44)=4.491,
p=.040, η²=.090, emerged. No laterality effect, F
(1,44)=0.861, p=.359, was observed and no further
interaction was significant (all p>.280).
Post-hoc analysis of the significant gender of poser-by-
ethnic group interaction revealed a significant difference
in amygdala activation for male posers (p=.009), with
higher values in the Asian sample and a trend in the
same direction for amygdala reactions to female posers
(p=.079). Mean parameter estimates of Asian females
and males and European females and males for the
Figure 1 Behavioral performance during the explicit emotion recognition task showing recognition accuracy with standard error of the
mean (SEM) for all emotions. Repeated measures ANOVA revealed a significant ethnic group effect (p<.001) with lower performance of the
Asian participants, in particular for angry and disgusted faces marked with an asterisk
Derntl et al. BMC Neuroscience 2012, 13:54
Page 3 of 11
contrast emotion-neutral female poser and male poser
are illustrated in Figure 3.
Since we observed no significant laterality effect and no
significant interaction, we performed correlation analyses
using the mean parameters of amygdala activation.
No significant correlation emerged between recognition
accuracy and mean response of the amygdala, neither for
the whole sample (p>.207), nor for Asians (p>.295)
or Europeans (p>.102).
Analyzing the impact of duration of stay on mean
revealed a significant result, r(22)=−0.394, p=.031, indi-
cating stronger amygdala response in those Asians with
demonstrated a significant negative association for both,
Asian females, r(11)=−0.550, p=.040, and Asian males,
r(11)=−0.578, p=.025. To explore whether these corre-
lations significantly differ we applied a Fisher’s Z trans-
formation, which revealed no significant difference
(Z=0.497, Z<1.65 which is the critical Z-value for
alpha=0.05). Using multiple hierarchical regression ana-
lyses, we assessed whether gender acts as a mediator
all Asian participants
Figure 2 Results of whole-slab analysis showing activation maps of random effects analysis for all emotions minus neutral on one axial
slice comprising the amygdala for the Asian sample (left) and for the Caucasian European sample (right) (threshold: p<.05, FDR
corrected). Stronger bilateral amygdala response to emotional categories (minus neutral expressions) is visible in both groups.
Table 1 Results from the whole brain analysis showing
activation in a widespread neural network during
recognition of emotional faces in Asians and Europeans
Inferior frontal gyrus (region) thresholded at p<.05, FDR
Contrast MNI X Y Z Cluster size t-value L/R
ASIANS – EMOTION>NEUTRAL
−4 −30 −10 122710.99 L Brainstem
38 12 −30 536 8.60 R Superior temporal gyrus
20 20 −22 1056.46R Inferior frontal gyrus
−22 16 −26 575 5.15L
−44 −36 −2298 5.11L Fusiform gyrus
6 16 −12 37 4.35R Thalamus
−62 −6 −1829 3.87L Middle temporal gyrus
−16 32 −22 203.70 L Orbitofrontal gyrus
16 −4 −24363.45 R Amygdala
−20 −56 −16 233.44 L Cerebellum
−22 0 −18 213.40 L Amygdala
EUROPEANS – EMOTION>NEUTRAL
34 −84 −142389 8.46 R Inferior occipital gyrus
−44 −74 −14738 8.43L Middle occipital gyrus
38 −64 −188117.99R Fusiform gyrus
28 56 −34 47 4.51 R Orbitofrontal gyrus
−18 −2 −16 44 4.43 L Amygdala
220 −1831 4.13R Amygdala
−16 22 −20 403.91 L Inferior frontal gyrus
MNI coordinates, cluster size (k>20), t-values, laterality and region.
Figure 3 Results from ROI analysis showing mean parameter
estimates of the amygdala for the emotion>neutral contrast
for female (FP) and male posers (MP) for Asian females (AF),
Asian males (AM), European females (EF) and European males
(EM), revealing significantly stronger amygdala activation in the
Asian sample (p=.004). Moreover, a significant gender of
poser-by-ethnic group interaction (p=.040) emerged, indicating
stronger activation of the Asian participants for male posers
(p=.009) and a trend for stronger activation for female posers
Derntl et al. BMC Neuroscience 2012, 13:54
Page 4 of 11
variable. While gender alone showed no significant effect
p=.368), duration of stay showed a significant impact
(beta=−0.532, t=−2.630, p=.016), but the interaction of
gender and duration of stay remained not significant
(beta=−0.386, t=−1.908, p=.071).
Explorative analysis of impact of gender of poser on
these correlations revealed a significant association be-
tween duration of stay and amygdala activation to male
posers, r(22)=−0.343, p =.035, while no such correlation
occurred for female posers, r(22)=−0.285, p=.188. Fig-
ure 4 illustrates the significant correlation between
amygdala response and duration of stay in Asian females
This study investigated the behavioral performance and
neural activation during an explicit emotion recognition
task to examine the impact of exposure to emotional
expressions of a different, previously unfamiliar ethnic
group in Asian female and male immigrants. In concord-
ance with previous results from our lab on male immi-
grants  and our hypothesis, bilateral amygdala
activation in both samples was observed, confirming the
role of the amygdala as a 'relevance detector' . The
amygdala seems to be fundamental in emotion proces-
sing as a part of the underlying neural network although
gender, socialization and cultural background seem to
exert a certain impact on its activation.
Amygdala activation and the alien-effect
In general, Asian females and males demonstrated signifi-
cantly stronger neural response of the amygdala when
asked to explicitly recognize the emotions presented by
Caucasian actors, which reflects recent findings observed
in an Asian male sample . Moreover, significantly
stronger amygdala activation was apparent during pro-
cessing of male faces in the Asian sample, while only a
trend emerged for female posers. Hence, recognizing
emotions in Caucasian faces, and here particularly male
faces, leads to stronger bilateral amygdala activation in
Asians than in Caucasians who are viewing in-group
faces. Interestingly, this effect is not specific to the gender
of the rater since both female and male Asians
responded similarly. This demonstrates that an alien-
effect exists for female and male immigrants, a finding
which extends our knowledge on ethnic group effects on
(emotional) face processing e.g., [9-12,15,16,38]. The
stronger amygdala activation might be related to novelty
but also motivation and emotional learning e.g.,  as
Asian immigrants may want to assimilate with the host
culture and thus emotional expressions of the foreign
ethnic group exhibit a strong salient cue as shown previ-
ously [40,41]. Moreover, in our study we only presented
faces with direct gaze and previous experiments indicated
that the amygdala is sensitive to gaze direction e.g.,
[42,43]. Richeson and colleagues  even showed that
race-related activity of the amygdala is modulated by eye-
gaze. Very recently, Adams et al.  reported stronger
amygdala activation to direct vs. averted gaze fear
expressed by out-group posers in Caucasian American
and Japanese students, while for in-group expressions
averted vs. direct gaze yielded stronger amygdala re-
sponse. Direct eye gaze has been shown to facilitate social
categorization  but also communicates a range of
intentions, amongst these also hostility  and has been
shown to influence threat perceptions e.g., . Hence, in
our Asian participants’ elevated amygdala activation par-
ticularly to out-group male expressions might also be
influenced by gaze direction, prompting a stronger need
Figure 4 Correlation analysis between mean parameter estimates of the amygdala region and duration of stay in Europe (months)
showing a significant negative association (r(22)=−0.394, p=.031) indicating stronger amygdala response in those Asian participants
with shorter duration of stay and thus probably reflecting adaptation effects on the neural level.
Derntl et al. BMC Neuroscience 2012, 13:54
Page 5 of 11
of fast evaluation. Additionally, several studies report
greater attention to out-group faces apparent in larger
amplitudes of the N100, the P200 and the P300 e.g.,
[48,49] probably reflecting an automatic vigilance effect
in which attention is quickly and relatively automatically
directed to 1) stimuli with potentially negative implica-
tions for the self e.g., , 2) stimuli that are emotionally-
valenced and thus are associated with greater arousal e.g.,
[51,52] and 3) stimuli that are novel and distinctive e.g.,
[53,54]. Therefore, it seems not surprising that the sole
presentation of Caucasian facial expressions of emotions
elicited stronger amygdala activation in our Asian partici-
pants (both females and males) as compared to Caucasian
Europeans. Nevertheless, by analyzing the impact of gen-
der of poser we extended current knowledge and future
studies might want to further analyze whether this factor
also affects studies on gaze perception.
We also observed a significant inverse correlation be-
tween duration of stay and amygdala activation during
emotion processing in the Asian group that was not
mediated by gender of participant. This result further
supports our previous finding from an exclusively male
sample, reflecting possible adaptation and familiarity
effects on the neural level and support the view that the
amygdala plays an essential role in the neural network
underlying the “alien-effect” and race processing in more
general cf. [13,14]. As pointed out by Kitayama and Park
, experience is powerfully organized by culture and
thus we assume that the observed association between
duration of stay and amygdala activation reflects neural
learning and acclimatization processes that can be mea-
sured within the first year and eventually might also im-
prove recognition accuracy. However, no significant
correlation emerged between behavioral performance
and duration of stay, probably for two reasons: 1) adapta-
tion effects manifest on the neural level before behavioral
performance differences can be measured, and 2) the fact
that there is no significant association of behavioral per-
formance and duration of stay might be due to the
restricted time of residency (max. 1 year) in our inclu-
sion criteria since this was a cross-sectional study. As
pointed out by Elfenbein and Ambady , a statistically
significant improvement in performance was detectable
after 2.4 years spent in the foreign culture. Longitudinal
studies with several time points would be necessary to
clarify after what time adaptation effects can be mea-
sured in which neural regions and when neural changes
lead to detectable improvements in performance.
Intracultural gender differences in amygdala activation
Analysis of gender differences in amygdala activation be-
tween Asian females and males as well as European
females and males revealed no significant gender differ-
ence. This finding was corroborated by the result from
the whole-brain analysis and is consistent with previous
results from others e.g.,  and recent findings from
our own group [31,32] addressing emotion recognition
abilities in healthy subjects. Considering Asian gender
differences, rarely have studies explicitly addressed this
topic in healthy Asian participants and observed no sig-
nificant difference in amygdala activation [27,28]. More-
over, several studies showed that gender differences in
personality, values, and emotions are larger in “Western”
cultures. They are seen as a product of self-stereotyping,
which occurs when between-gender social comparisons
are made which are more likely, and exert a greater im-
pact, in Western nations e.g., . Thus, we believe
while gender effects in amygdala activation during emo-
tion processing and more specifically during emotion
recognition might occur in clinical samples e.g.,  in
healthy females and males, especially from Asian origin,
and using the described task, no such differences will
arise cf. [31,32]. Nevertheless, gender differences in
amygdala activation during various emotional behavior e.
g., humor processing: ; empathy: [58,59] have been
strongly rely on regions associated with emotion proces-
sing, i.e. amygdala, insula, posterior cingulate cortex,
while males rather recruit cognition-related areas, i.e.
temporo-parietal junction. Here, fMRI studies investigat-
ing the interaction of culture and gender on the neural
and behavioral correlates are missing but are needed if
our understanding is to be extended.
Emotion recognition performance and the alien-effect
The “alien-effect” was also evident in the emotion recog-
nition performance, as recognition accuracy differed sig-
nificantly between groups: Asian females and males had
greater difficulties with Caucasian expressions of anger
and disgust, which was apparent in their behavioral per-
formance during scanning.
Anger is considered to be a very powerful and threa-
tening emotion particularly when depicted by out-group
targets cf. [47,60,61] and some studies even suggest that
powerful emotions are more intensely experienced and
expressed by men, while women rather experience emo-
tions associated with powerlessness, such as fear, sadness
and shame e.g., . Despite this gender issue, some
expressions of anger are less accurately recognized by
Asian participants than by Caucasian subjects, in par-
ticular Caucasian Americans e.g., [33,41]. Interestingly,
Huang et al. also observed an inter-Asian difference in
anger recognition, with Chinese subjects performing sig-
nificantly better than Japanese subjects when confronted
with Japanese and Caucasian expressions of anger.
Huang and colleagues thus suggest that 1) Asian raters
do not judge negative emotions – irrespective of poser
Derntl et al. BMC Neuroscience 2012, 13:54
Page 6 of 11
ethnicity – the same way that Caucasians do, and 2)
Japanese raters obviously have a stronger tendency not
to label negative emotional expressions as negative but
tend to rather pick the neutral category. We investigated
participants from China (n=17) and Japan (n=7) but
the small sample size prevented computing of any inter-
Asian analysis of performance. Therefore, our results
need to be replicated in a larger sample to allow com-
parison between Asian subjects of different ethnicities.
At the moment, our data support the assumption of
Huang et al.  suggesting that particularly expressions
of negative emotions, here anger, might be strongly influ-
enced by so-called nonverbal dialects in expression style.
Additionally, behavioral performance and choice of re-
sponse might also be influenced by cultural stereotypes,
in particular by the cultural evaluation of negative
While this study provides new insight into cultural and
gender effects on amygdala activation during emotion
recognition, several methodological constraints have to
be considered. Since this was a cross-sectional study we
cannot make any inferences on the further course of the
adaptation process, in particular regarding emotion rec-
ognition performance. As pointed out above, we can only
speculate that the initial difficulties apparent in the lower
recognition accuracy may diminish after a certain time
spent in the foreign culture and only longitudinal studies
with several time points allow demonstration of neural
and behavioral learning processes and the underlying
We were particularly interested in cultural effects on
amygdala activation and thus relied on a specifically opti-
mized protocol with restricted brain coverage. However,
in light of the significant behavioral differences for anger
and previous results on the neural circuits of race pro-
cessing cf. , whole brain coverage might be more fa-
vorable to detect differences in higher cortical areas (e.g.,
insula, anterior cingulate cortex, prefrontal cortex) and
enable analysis of effective connectivity of the amygdala
within the emotional network. In the future this should
be possible using phased-array head coils with improved
sensitivity at higher magnetic fields cf. .
Moreover, presenting more stimuli per emotion would
have allowed emotion specific analysis and thus might
have enabled further understanding of recognition diffi-
culties apparent in significantly reduced performance for
angry expressions in Asians. Despite the lack of standar-
dized and validated stimuli from Asian subjects in our
stimulus material, presentation of these stimuli would
have enabled a thorough analysis of in-group and out-
group effects. However, we were specifically interested in
how faces of the major ethnic group immigrants with a
different ethnic background are confronted with are pro-
cessed on the neural and behavioral level. Cross-cultural
studies showing in-group and out-group faces to in-
group and out-group raters are scarce, particularly in
neuroimaging experiments e.g., [11,15-17,38] and most
studies have shown stimuli of different ethnic targets to
participants from only one ethnic group or mixed
groups, not differentiating between several ethnic groups
e.g., . Moreover, Future studies might want to inves-
tigate the impact of duration of stay on the neural sub-
strates of the in-group and out-group effects in facial
More generally, the selection of participants per sé is
biased. We refer to Asians but only measured a small
group of Chinese and Japanese females and males. More-
over, evidence has accumulated that genetic differences
are inextricably intertwined with cultural differences
[2,65]. However, in this study we concentrated on the ef-
fect of culture on amygdala activity; it was not our aim
to highlight the causes of these cultural differences.
This is the first study to investigate the impact of gender,
gender of poser, and ethnic group on emotion recogni-
tion and its behavioral and neural correlates in Asian
and European females and males. We observed bilateral
amygdala activation to emotional expressions in all
groups. In the Asian sample, a stronger response of the
amygdala was observed bilaterally and paralleled by
reduced performance, especially for angry and disgusted
faces. ROI analysis revealed no significant gender differ-
ence in amygdala activation, but a significant interaction
of gender of poser and ethnic group, indicating stronger
activation in the Asian sample, particularly for male
expressions. Moreover, we observed a significant inverse
correlation between duration of stay and amygdala acti-
vation indicating that exposure to a foreign ethnic group
is a relevant factor for neuroimaging studies addressing
emotion processing in female and male immigrants. Par-
ticularly in times of globalization and increasing inter-
nonverbal communication styles e.g. by accurately recog-
nizing emotional expressions, is critical for successful so-
cietal integration and interaction between members of
different ethnic groups and this competency underlies
adaptation effects. These adaptation effects however
might not be limited to emotional competencies, thus
the impact of duration of stay might also occur for cog-
nitive functions which needs to be elucidated in studies
to come. Notably, in our study, culture and gender of
poser significantly modulated emotion recognition accur-
acy and amygdala activation, indicating that not only be-
Derntl et al. BMC Neuroscience 2012, 13:54
Page 7 of 11
differences, particularly regarding the impact of stimulus
material on neural activation, should be considered.
Taken together, this study demonstrates the first at-
tempt to analyze the impact of gender and culture on
amygdala activation during emotion recognition. While
we observed no gender difference, culture and gender of
poser asserted significant effects on the behavioral and
neural correlates of this emotional capacity, thereby
extending our knowledge on the bases of emotion recog-
nition differences between participants with divergent
Fourty-eight participants were recruited via advertise-
ments posted at the University of Vienna and the Med-
ical University of Vienna, Austria. The Asian group
comprised twelve right-handed healthy females aged
19–32 years (mean age 23.5 years, SD=3.9) and 12
right-handed males aged 22–35 years (mean age
25.6 years, SD=3.6). Asian subjects were exchange
students from China (n=17, 8 females) and Japan (n=7, 4
females). An important inclusion criterion for the Asian
subjects was duration of stay: all Asian subjects had been in
Europe for less than one year (mean: 5.8 months, SD=3.4;
min: 1 month, max: 12 months) and spoke English fluently.
We specifically chose exchange students as this sample is
not affected by age effects (being homogeneous and young),
has a similar educational background and because these are
subjects that visit another country a) for a limited time only,
and b) on a voluntary basis.
The Caucasian European group was made up of twelve
right-handed healthy females aged 19–29 years (mean
age 23.75 years, SD=2.8) and 12 right-handed males
aged 22–34 years (mean age 25.58, SD=3.3). All subjects
were financially reimbursed for their participation and
written informed consent was obtained. The study was
approved by the local ethics committee and subjects
were treated according to the Declaration of Helsinki
(1964) regarding treatment
Exclusion of psychiatric disorders (according to DSM-
IV) was ascertained by the Structured Clinical Interview
(German Version of the SCID, ) and the usual exclu-
sion criteria for MRI were applied.
(3,46)=0.005, p=.942) and had completed comparable
number of years of education (F (1,46)=0.96, p=.444).
Alexithymia scores did not differ significantly between the
groups (TAS-20, F (1,46)=0.398, p=.532). In addition,
Asian and European subjects did not differ significantly in
their estimated nonverbal intelligence (Standard Progressive
Matrices , F (1,46)=1.314, p=.258). Moreover, neither a
significant gender (all p-values>.185) nor a significant
gender-by-ethnic group interaction (all p-values>.334)
The explicit emotion recognition task used in this study
consisted of 30 color photographs of evoked facial
expressions portraying the five basic emotions (anger,
disgust, fear, happiness and sadness) and an equal num-
ber of neutral expressions. All images were taken from a
stimulus set which has been standardized and used re-
peatedly in neuroimaging research (for their develop-
ment, see ). The stimuli were balanced for emotion
and gender. Each actor appeared only once and all actors
were Caucasians. Since we were interested in minor cul-
tural influences reflected in initial difficulties with regard
to emotion recognition in a foreign ethnic group, we did
not assess recognition accuracy for in-group faces in the
Asian group on the assumption that emotion recognition
of in-group facial expressions is a general basic ability
which is given in all ethnicities without any significant
differences (for review see [40,69]).
Stimulus presentation was randomized with regard to
emotion and the order of presentation was kept constant
between subjects. Subjects were instructed to choose the
correct emotion from two possibilities presented on the
left and right of the face by pressing the corresponding
button of a response box using the right middle and
index finger as quickly as possible. One of the options
was correct and the other was selected at random from
the other categories (see above). Facial expressions were
presented for a maximum of 5 s with a randomized, vari-
able interstimulus interval (ISI) ranging from 12 s to 18 s
(during which subjects viewed a scrambled face with a
central crosshair). Manual responses triggered immediate
progression to the next ISI. Stimuli were projected onto
a screen and viewed by the participants via a mirror
mounted on the head coil. The presentation of images,
recording of responses, and acquisition of scanner trig-
gers (one per TR) was controlled with the Presentation
software package (Neurobehavioral Systems, Inc., Al-
bany, CA, USA).
Behavioral data analysis
Statistical analyses were performed using SPSS 15.0 and
unless otherwise specified, the level of significance was
p=.05 (two tailed). The behavioral data (i.e., emotion
recognition performance and reaction times) acquired
during scanning were analyzed with a repeated measures
ANOVA, with emotion (anger, disgust, fear, happiness,
sadness and neutral) and gender of poser (female vs.
male) as within-subject factors and ethnic group (Asian
vs. European) and gender (female vs. male) as between-
Derntl et al. BMC Neuroscience 2012, 13:54
Page 8 of 11
FMRI acquisition parameters and data processing
All subjects were examined with a 3 Tesla Medspec
whole-body scanner (Bruker Biospin, Ettlingen, Ger-
many) at the MR Centre of Excellence, Medical Univer-
sityof Vienna, Austria.
performed in the axial plane using gradient-recalled echo
planar imaging (EPI). Ten oblique axial slices centered
on the amygdala were acquired using asymmetric k-
space sampling (FOV=25 × 21cm, matrix size 128 × 91,
slice thickness 2 mm, slice gap 0.5 mm, TR=1000 ms,
TE=31 ms, 570 volumes per run) as has been shown to
be sensitive enough to measure reliable amygdala activa-
tion [70-73]. Cardiac action and breathing were digitally
recorded to allow physiological artifact correction in
post-processing which has been shown to increase the
sensitivity of fMRI analyses, especially in the amygdala
Functional data were preprocessed using SPM2 (http://
comparison with the Asian male data . Images were
slice timing corrected, realigned to the mean image and
normalized into the standardized stereotactic MNI space.
Functional data sets were spatially smoothed using an
isotropic Gaussian kernel with a full-width-at-half-max-
imum of 9 mm. For this event-related design, each
stimulus was modeled with a separate regressor, based
on the individual response period convolved with the ca-
nonical hemodynamic response function and its tem-
poral derivative. An additional box-car regressor without
hemodynamic delay was used to account for signal
changes due to head motion during stimulus presenta-
tion. To exclude low-frequency confounds, the data were
high-pass filtered using a discrete cosine basis transform
set with a cutoff period of 128 s. Regressors of each emo-
tional stimulus were pooled to assess brain responses to
emotional expressions, and the same procedure was ap-
plied for neutral faces to retrieve brain response to neu-
tral stimuli. Moreover, a contrast including all emotional
stimuli minus the neutral expressions was used to separ-
ate amygdala activation towards emotional faces vs. neu-
tral expressions. Statistical analysis was performed at the
individual and group levels. To detect group differences,
contrast images from all subjects were included in a sec-
ond level random effects analysis. To analyze the impact
of gender and culture on whole brain activation, two-
sample t-tests were performed comparing Females vs.
Males and Asians vs. Europeans. All results are reported
at p<.05, FDR corrected.
to allow direct
Region of interest (ROI) analysis Since our main hy-
pothesis focused on the amygdala we performed a ROI
analysis with the aim of maximizing the sensitivity to
amygdala results. Values for amygdala ROIs were
extracted using a template based on the MNI single
subject brain , as defined in MRIcro (http://www.sph.
estimates were extracted from SPM results for left and
right amygdala ROI in each condition and subject using
IDL (Interactive Data Language, RSI Inc., Boulder, CO,
USA). An emotion>neutral contrast was calculated,
pooling all emotional stimuli minus all neutral stimuli.
This subtraction contrast removed the effect of any base-
line changes in signal, such as scanner drift. Levene-tests
for homogeneity of variances indicated homoscedasticity
for the parameter estimates across all subjects (contrast:
emotion>neutral for female and male posers separately)
of left and right amygdala (left: both p>.340; right: both
p>.453). A four-way ANOVA was applied with ethnic
group (Asian vs. European) and gender (female vs. male)
as between-subjects factor and laterality (left vs. right
amygdala) and gender of poser (female vs. male) as
within-subject factors. In cases of violation of sphericity
assumption Greenhouse-Geisser corrected p-values are
Corollary analyses Correlation analyses were performed
between recognition accuracy and right and left amyg-
dala response. To analyze the influence of duration of
stay a correlation analysis between months of stay in
Austria and behavioral performance as well as amygdala
activation was computed for the Asian sample. More-
over, to assess whether gender mediates the correlation
between duration of stay and amygdala activation we
performed multiple hierarchical linear analyses with
amygdala activation as dependent variable and gender
and duration of stay as independent variables as sug-
gested by .
This study was supported by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF P16669-B02 to
EM and P23533 to BD). RCG was supported by the National Institute of
Mental Health grant MH60722. BD and UH were further supported by the
German Research Foundation (DFG, IRTG 1328, KFO 112, Ha3202/7-1) and the
Medical Faculty of the RWTH Aachen University (IZKF TV N70, START 690811).
We are grateful to Elisabeth Lamplmayr for her help in the recruitment of
1MR Centre of Excellence, Medical University of Vienna, Vienna, Austria.
2Institute for Clinical, Biological and Differential Psychology, Faculty of
Psychology, University of Vienna, Vienna, Austria.3Department of Psychiatry,
Psychotherapy, and Psychosomatics, RWTH Aachen University, Aachen,
Germany.4Centre for Medical Physics and Biomedical Engineering, Medical
University of Vienna, Vienna, Austria.5Department of Psychiatry, University of
Pennsylvania Medical School, and the Philadelphia Veterans Administration
Medical Center, Philadelphia, USA.
BD and UH designed the study, recruited subjects, analyzed behavioral and
functional data, and wrote the manuscript. CW and SR were the physicists
who conducted the fMRI measurements, helped with functional data
analyses and writing of the manuscript. IKE, RCG and EM helped with
interpretation of data and final version of manuscript. All authors contributed
to and have approved the final manuscript.
Derntl et al. BMC Neuroscience 2012, 13:54
Page 9 of 11
Received: 3 October 2011 Accepted: 29 May 2012
Published: 29 May 2012
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Cite this article as: Derntl et al.: Culture but not gender modulates
amygdala activation during explicit emotion recognition. BMC
Neuroscience 2012 13:54.
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