Neural Correlates of Being a Total Bad-Ass

A new fMRI study in PLoS reports Differential Brain Activation to Angry Faces by Elite Warfighters, the elite warfighters being US Navy SEALs.

SEALs are indeed pretty elite. This being a British blog, I wouldn't want to say that they're the world's elitest naval special forces unit. That's the British Special Boat Service. But they could still kill you ten times before you knew they were there (unless you're in the Special Boat Service.)

Anyway, San Diego researchers Paulus et al scanned 11 SEALs and 23 healthy civilian men during an emotional face matching (originally developed by Hariri et al) that involved seeing happy, angry, and fearful faces.

Such tasks are very popular in neuroimaging at the moment because looking at faces of people expressing strong emotions reliably activates emotion-related brain areas, without needing to actually induce emotions in your volunteers which can cause practical problems, i.e. people getting scared and maybe panicking in the MRI scanner. Whether studying emotional-face-induced activation is a valid substitute for studying emotion-induced activation is an open question.

What happened? fMRI being a sensitive way of measuring human brain activation, they found some differences between the two groups in neural responses to seeing the faces:
elite warfighters relative to comparison subjects showed relatively greater right-sided insula, but attenuated left-sided insula, activation. Second, these individuals showed selectively greater activation to angry target faces relative to fearful or happy target faces bilaterally in the insula.
OK. So what does that mean?
These findings support the notion that elite warfighters... deploy greater neural processing resources toward potential threat-related facial expressions and reduced processing resources to non-threat-related facial expressions. This finding suggests that rather than expending more effort in general, elite warfighters show more focused neural and performance tuning, such that greater neural processing resources are directed toward threat stimuli and processing resources are conserved when facing a nonthreat stimulus situation.
So the message is that SEALs are better at focusing on threats and don't get distracted by benign background stuff. Although apparently this is only true of their insula, not an area known for its role in attention, and the threat was an angry face on a screen. But that aside, this is not very surprising given that they're highly-trained soldiers.

But the unsurprisingness of this result is a problem. We don't need neuroscience to tell us that elite soldiers are good at detecting and responding to threats. That's rather obvious. I'd guess that most of them were pretty good at it before they got selected, and then they got even better with training. This must have something to do with the brain, because your brain is what allows you to learn stuff.

What we don't understand very well yet is how training (or other forms of learning) works, on a neural level, i.e. what the molecular and cellular mechanisms are. It would be really nice to find out. Unfortunately, fMRI studies like this are unable to tell us that, because they only study the very last stage in the process, the final product.

This is in no way a problem with this paper alone, and it's no worse than many other articles. The same issue applies to many neuroimaging studies of abnormal states like depression or, as I've posted about previously, psychological trauma. Such results can form the basis for investigations into mechanisms, and as ways of testing theories, but on their own, finding that abnormal brains react in abnormal ways is not, in itself, very useful.

ResearchBlogging.orgPaulus, M., Simmons, A., Fitzpatrick, S., Potterat, E., Van Orden, K., Bauman, J., & Swain, J. (2010). Differential Brain Activation to Angry Faces by Elite Warfighters: Neural Processing Evidence for Enhanced Threat Detection PLoS ONE, 5 (4) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0010096

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