Alexithymia is a psychological construct that can be divided into a cognitive and affective dimension. The cognitive dimension is characterized by difficulties in identifying, verbalizing and analysing feelings. The affective dimension comprises reduced levels of emotional experience and imagination. Alexithymia is widely regarded to arise from an impairment of emotion regulation. This is the first functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study to critically evaluate this by investigating the neural correlates of emotion regulation as a function of alexithymia levels. The aim of the current study was to investigate the neural correlates underlying the two alexithymia dimensions during emotion perception and emotion regulation. Using fMRI, we scanned 51 healthy subjects while viewing, reappraising or suppressing negative emotional pictures. The results support the idea that cognitive alexithymia, but not affective alexithymia, is associated with lower activation in emotional attention and recognition networks during emotion perception. However, in contrast with several theories, no alexithymia-related differences were found during emotion regulation (neither reappraisal nor suppression). These findings suggest that alexithymia may result from an early emotion processing deficit rather than compromised frontal circuits subserving higher-order emotion regulation processes.
van der Velde, J., Gromann, P. M., Swart, M., Wiersma, D., de Haan, L., Bruggeman, R., Krabbendam, L., & Aleman, A. (2014). Alexithymia influences brain activation during emotion perception but not regulation. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsu056