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Original Article
December 2007

Visual Information Processing of Faces in Body Dysmorphic Disorder

Author Affiliations

Author Affiliations: Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences (Drs Feusner and Bystritsky) and Center for Cognitive Neuroscience (Ms Townsend and Dr Bookheimer), David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2007;64(12):1417-1425. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.64.12.1417

Context  Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is a severe psychiatric condition in which individuals are preoccupied with perceived appearance defects. Clinical observation suggests that patients with BDD focus on details of their appearance at the expense of configural elements. This study examines abnormalities in visual information processing in BDD that may underlie clinical symptoms.

Objective  To determine whether patients with BDD have abnormal patterns of brain activation when visually processing others' faces with high, low, or normal spatial frequency information.

Design  Case-control study.

Setting  University hospital.

Participants  Twelve right-handed, medication-free subjects with BDD and 13 control subjects matched by age, sex, and educational achievement.

Intervention  Functional magnetic resonance imaging while performing matching tasks of face stimuli. Stimuli were neutral-expression photographs of others' faces that were unaltered, altered to include only high spatial frequency visual information, or altered to include only low spatial frequency visual information.

Main Outcome Measure  Blood oxygen level–dependent functional magnetic resonance imaging signal changes in the BDD and control groups during tasks with each stimulus type.

Results  Subjects with BDD showed greater left hemisphere activity relative to controls, particularly in lateral prefrontal cortex and lateral temporal lobe regions for all face tasks (and dorsal anterior cingulate activity for the low spatial frequency task). Controls recruited left-sided prefrontal and dorsal anterior cingulate activity only for the high spatial frequency task.

Conclusions  Subjects with BDD demonstrate fundamental differences from controls in visually processing others' faces. The predominance of left-sided activity for low spatial frequency and normal faces suggests detail encoding and analysis rather than holistic processing, a pattern evident in controls only for high spatial frequency faces. These abnormalities may be associated with apparent perceptual distortions in patients with BDD. The fact that these findings occurred while subjects viewed others' faces suggests differences in visual processing beyond distortions of their own appearance.