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A neural network underlying intentional emotional facial expression in neurodegenerative disease.

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Intentional facial expression of emotion is critical to healthy social interactions. Patients with neurodegenerative disease, particularly those with right temporal or prefrontal atrophy, show dramatic socioemotional impairment. This was an exploratory study examining the neural and behavioral correlates of intentional facial expression of emotion in neurodegenerative disease patients and healthy controls. One hundred and thirty three participants (45 Alzheimer's disease, 16 behavioral variant frontotemporal dementia, 8 non-fluent primary progressive aphasia, 10 progressive supranuclear palsy, 11 right-temporal frontotemporal dementia, 9 semantic variant primary progressive aphasia patients and 34 healthy controls) were video recorded while imitating static images of emotional faces and producing emotional expressions based on verbal command; the accuracy of their expression was rated by blinded raters. Participants also underwent face-to-face socioemotional testing and informants described participants' typical socioemotional behavior. Patients' performance on emotion expression tasks was correlated with gray matter volume using voxel-based morphometry (VBM) across the entire sample. We found that intentional emotional imitation scores were related to fundamental socioemotional deficits; patients with known socioemotional deficits performed worse than controls on intentional emotion imitation; and intentional emotional expression predicted caregiver ratings of empathy and interpersonal warmth. Whole brain VBMs revealed a rightward cortical atrophy pattern homologous to the left lateralized speech production network was associated with intentional emotional imitation deficits. Results point to a possible neural mechanisms underlying complex socioemotional communication deficits in neurodegenerative disease patients.

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