We investigated the spatio-temporal dynamic of attentional bias towards fearful faces. Twelve participants performed a covert spatial orienting task while recording visual event-related brain potentials (VEPs). Each trial consisted of a pair of faces (one emotional and one neutral) briefly presented in the upper visual field, followed by a unilateral bar presented at the location of one of the faces. Participants had to judge the orientation of the bar. Comparing VEPs to bars shown at the location of an emotional (valid) versus neutral (invalid) face revealed an early effect of spatial validity: the lateral occipital P1 component (approximately 130 ms post-stimulus) was selectively increased when a bar replaced a fearful face compared to when the same bar replaced a neutral face. This effect was not found with upright happy faces or inverted fearful faces. A similar amplification of P1 has previously been observed in electrophysiological studies of spatial attention using non-emotional cues. In a behavioural control experiment, participants were also better at discriminating the orientation of the bar when it replaced a fearful rather than a neutral face. In addition, VEPs time-locked to the face-pair onset revealed a C1 component (approximately 90 ms) that was greater for fearful than happy faces. Source localization (LORETA) confirmed an extrastriate origin of the P1 response showing a spatial validity effect, and a striate origin of the C1 response showing an emotional valence effect. These data suggest that activity in primary visual cortex might be enhanced by fear cues as early as 90 ms post-stimulus, and that such effects might result in a subsequent facilitation of sensory processing for a stimulus appearing at the same location. These results provide evidence for neural mechanisms allowing rapid, exogenous spatial orienting of attention towards fear stimuli.
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