Emotional Arousal Deficit or Emotional Regulation Bias? An Electrophysiological Study of Age-Related Differences in Emotion perception

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Thank you to Ann Rossmiller and Elizabeth Walker for your contributions to this project!


Background/Study Context: Adult age differences in emotion processing have been attributed to age-related decline in earlier emotional perception and age-related bias in later emotional regulation. Yet, the relationship between the processes of early emotion perception and bias in emotional regulation and their influence on behavioral outcomes remains unclear. Event-related potentials (ERPs) have the temporal precision to allow for the online measure of neurophysiological activity and provide potential insight into the complex dynamics of emotion processing and aging.

Methods: ERPS were used as the primary measure to examine the hypotheses that younger adults will differ in emotional arousal and emotional bias as represented by the early P1 waveform and later P3 waveform, respectively. Thirty-two younger and older adults (16 each) performed a facial emotion discrimination task in which they identified standardized angry, happy, or neutral expressions of faces from the NimStim database (Tottenham et al., 2009).

Results: Younger adults showed a greater P1 ERP for angry faces relative to happy faces at parietal channels, while older adults did not exhibit any emotional modulation of the P1. In contrast, both younger and older adults showed a greater late P3 ERP for angry faces compared to happy faces.

Conclusion: Our results provide evidence for an age-related deficit in early emotion perception and autonomic arousal. Younger adults, but not older adults, exhibited a pattern of neurophysiological activity believed to reflect preconscious and reflexive identification of threat (Vuilleumier, 2005). Despite these age group differences in early emotion processing, younger and older adults did not exhibit differences in neurophysiological processes believed to reflect emotion regulation.


James R. Houston, Joshua W. Pollock, Mei-Ching Lien, Philip A. Allen


Experimental Aging Research