Compensatory premotor activity during affective face processing in subclinical carriers of a single mutant Parkin allele
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Patients with Parkinson's disease suffer from significant motor impairments and accompanying cognitive and affective dysfunction due to progressive disturbances of basal ganglia-cortical gating loops. Parkinson's disease has a long presymptomatic stage, which indicates a substantial capacity of the human brain to compensate for dopaminergic nerve degeneration before clinical manifestation of the disease. Neuroimaging studies provide evidence that increased motor-related cortical activity can compensate for progressive dopaminergic nerve degeneration in carriers of a single mutant Parkin or PINK1 gene, who show a mild but significant reduction of dopamine metabolism in the basal ganglia in the complete absence of clinical motor signs. However, it is currently unknown whether similar compensatory mechanisms are effective in non-motor basal ganglia-cortical gating loops. Here, we ask whether asymptomatic Parkin mutation carriers show altered patterns of brain activity during processing of facial gestures, and whether this might compensate for latent facial emotion recognition deficits. Current theories in social neuroscience assume that execution and perception of facial gestures are linked by a special class of visuomotor neurons ('mirror neurons') in the ventrolateral premotor cortex/pars opercularis of the inferior frontal gyrus (Brodmann area 44/6). We hypothesized that asymptomatic Parkin mutation carriers would show increased activity in this area during processing of affective facial gestures, replicating the compensatory motor effects that have previously been observed in these individuals. Additionally, Parkin mutation carriers might show altered activity in other basal ganglia-cortical gating loops. Eight asymptomatic heterozygous Parkin mutation carriers and eight matched controls underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging and a subsequent facial emotion recognition task. As predicted, Parkin mutation carriers showed significantly stronger activity in the right ventrolateral premotor cortex during execution and perception of affective facial gestures than healthy controls. Furthermore, Parkin mutation carriers showed a slightly reduced ability to recognize facial emotions that was least severe in individuals who showed the strongest increase of ventrolateral premotor activity. In addition, Parkin mutation carriers showed a significantly weaker than normal increase of activity in the left lateral orbitofrontal cortex (inferior frontal gyrus pars orbitalis, Brodmann area 47), which was unrelated to facial emotion recognition ability. These findings are consistent with the hypothesis that compensatory activity in the ventrolateral premotor cortex during processing of affective facial gestures can reduce impairments in facial emotion recognition in subclinical Parkin mutation carriers. A breakdown of this compensatory mechanism might lead to the impairment of facial expressivity and facial emotion recognition observed in manifest Parkinson's disease.