The focus of this literature review is on the patterns of amygdala activation and its role in attentional threat assessment, as well the effects of the neuropeptide oxytocin on the amygdala. The amygdala plays an important role in human threat assessment. In both humans and primates, the identification of facial expressions and their direction of gaze is a necessary aspect of social behavior, and the amygdala plays a large role in this function (Boll, Gamer, Kalisch, & Buchel, 2011, p. 299). From a medical standpoint, the study of the amygdala would help in understanding the neurological basis of many behavior disorders such as borderline personality disorder and post traumatic stress disorder. These studies make use of novel techniques with a combination of functional MRI and eye tracking based face perception tasks. More recent studies have involved more precise imaging in order to observe specific regions of the amygdala, rather than the amygdala as a whole structure. The amygdala is strongly influenced by fearful and angry faces, which stimulate feelings of threat. The amygdala also exhibits differential activation in different sexes, thus having extensive implications on tailoring drugs for mood disorders in the different sexes (Lischke et al., 2012, p. 1432).
Amygdala activation and its role in attentional threat assessment
When considering the role of the amygdala in attentional threat assessment, recent research attempts to tackle certain questions: 1. Does amygdala activation depend on the focus of attention? 2. What is the relationship between amygdala activation and gaze orientation? 3. How is threat assessed when viewing emotional faces with ambiguous directions of gaze and concentrating on a corresponding emotional scenario? 4. What is the functional role of the amygdala complex in driving attentional orienting? I will discuss the findings of recent research focused on answering these critical questions and the implications of these studies respectively. Specifically, I will first discuss what studies show about the relationship between gaze orientation/direction and the amygdala, and then I will examine the relationship between the amygdala and the focus of attention.
The amygdala and gaze orientation/direction
It was hypothesized that amygdala activation caused by fearful faces is related to attentional shifts toward the eyes. Gamer & Buchel tested this hypothesis in a 2009 study on amygdala activation. Using eye-tracking techniques, they found that gaze changes toward the eyes in facial images occurred more often than gaze changes leaving the eye region; however, the magnitude of this effect was contingent on the emotion expressed in the image. They observed that the amygdala exhibited elevated activity when the participants observed fearful faces where the mouth was aligned to the fixation cross. Individuals with the most activity in the right amygdala showed the most prominent shifts of gaze toward the eyes of fearful...