Facial expression and eye gaze provide a shared signal about threats. While a fear expression with averted gaze clearly points to the source of threat, direct-gaze fear renders the source of threat ambiguous. Separable routes have been proposed to mediate these processes, with preferential attunement of the magnocellular (M) pathway to clear threat, and of the parvocellular (P) pathway to threat ambiguity. Here we investigated how observers' trait anxiety modulates M- and P-pathway processing of clear and ambiguous threat cues. We scanned subjects (N = 108) widely ranging in trait anxiety while they viewed fearful or neutral faces with averted or directed gaze, with the luminance and color of face stimuli calibrated to selectively engage M- or P-pathways. Higher anxiety facilitated processing of clear threat projected to M-pathway, but impaired perception of ambiguous threat projected to P-pathway. Increased right amygdala reactivity was associated with higher anxiety for M-biased averted-gaze fear, while increased left amygdala reactivity was associated with higher anxiety for P-biased, direct-gaze fear. This lateralization was more pronounced with higher anxiety. Our findings suggest that trait anxiety differentially affects perception of clear (averted-gaze fear) and ambiguous (direct-gaze fear) facial threat cues via selective engagement of M and P pathways and lateralized amygdala reactivity.
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