Brain Imaging and Behavior

, Volume 13, Issue 3, pp 603–614 | Cite as

The role of medial prefrontal cortex in processing emotional self-referential information: a combined TMS/fMRI study

  • Nicola De PisapiaEmail author
  • Guido Barchiesi
  • Jorge Jovicich
  • Luigi Cattaneo
Original Research


In this study we investigate the neural basis of emotional content in self-referential processing by using a combination of off-line repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (rTMS) applied to the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and whole-brain functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI).We applied effective or ineffective (sham) 1-Hz rTMS to the mPFC of 14 healthy participants who immediately thereafter underwent fMRI while performing a personality attribution task to self or to others. rTMS produced an increase in the participants’ reaction time (≈ 60 msec) when processing negative attributes. The neuroimaging findings indicated the involvement of a network of cortical nodes distant from those at the stimulation site; these distant nodes showed task-specific changes in blood oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) activity after effective TMS. The posterior cingulate cortex seemingly encoded the negative dimension of stimuli, but it did not differentiate between self or other. On the contrary the left angular gyrus and the left anterior temporal cortex showed changes indicating encoding of negative self-directed categorization. The mPFC region did not show effects of rTMS along the self-other dimension, but only along the affective dimension. The results indicate that the mPFC is a pivotal node in a cortical network that supports affective referential reasoning. Therefore, a key function of mPFC seems to be related to the processing of negative attributes. In the other nodes of the network the two dimensions of self-other attribution and affective attribution are partially independent, but largely overlapping with different degrees of local specialization.


Affective Default mode Transcranial magnetic stimulation Self-other Emotions Referential processes 


Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interests

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

Supplementary material

11682_2018_9867_MOESM1_ESM.docx (12 kb)
ESM 1 Adjective selection. A description of how the list of adjectives presented as verbal stimuli in the MRI scanner was selected. (DOCX 12 kb)


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Psychology and Cognitive ScienceUniversity of TrentoRoveretoItaly
  2. 2.Division of Physiological PsychologyParis-Lodron Universität SalzburgSalzburgAustria
  3. 3.CIMeC - Center for Mind/Brain SciencesUniversity of TrentoRoveretoItaly
  4. 4.Department of Neurological, Biomedical and Movement ScienceUniversity of VeronaVeronaItaly

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