There is significant controversy over the existence and function of a direct subcortical visual pathway to the amygdala. It is thought that this pathway rapidly transmits low spatial frequency information to the amygdala independently of the cortex, and yet the directionality of this function has never been determined. We used magnetoencephalography to measure neural activity while human participants discriminated the gender of neutral and fearful faces filtered for low or high spatial frequencies. We applied dynamic causal modeling to demonstrate that the most likely underlying neural network consisted of a pulvinar-amygdala connection that was uninfluenced by spatial frequency or emotion, and a cortical-amygdala connection that conveyed high spatial frequencies. Crucially, data-driven neural simulations revealed a clear temporal advantage of the subcortical connection over the cortical connection in influencing amygdala activity. Thus, our findings support the existence of a rapid subcortical pathway that is nonselective in terms of the spatial frequency or emotional content of faces. We propose that that the “coarseness” of the subcortical route may be better reframed as “generalized.”
SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT The human amygdala coordinates how we respond to biologically relevant stimuli, such as threat or reward. It has been postulated that the amygdala first receives visual input via a rapid subcortical route that conveys “coarse” information, namely, low spatial frequencies. For the first time, the present paper provides direction-specific evidence from computational modeling that the subcortical route plays a generalized role in visual processing by rapidly transmitting raw, unfiltered information directly to the amygdala. This calls into question a widely held assumption across human and animal research that fear responses are produced faster by low spatial frequencies. Our proposed mechanism suggests organisms quickly generate fear responses to a wide range of visual properties, heavily implicating future research on anxiety-prevention strategies.