Pictures of disgusting foods and disgusted facial expressions suppress the tongue motor cortex

Carmelo Mario Vicario, Robert D Rafal, Sara Borgomaneri, Riccardo Paracampo, Ada Kritikos, Alessio Avenanti

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The tongue holds a unique role in gustatory disgust. However, it is unclear whether the tongue representation in the motor cortex (tM1) is affected by the sight of distaste-related stimuli. Using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) in healthy humans, we recorded tongue motor-evoked potentials (MEPs) as an index of tM1 cortico-hypoglossal excitability. MEPs were recorded while participants viewed pictures associated with gustatory disgust and revulsion (i.e., rotten foods and faces expressing distaste), non oral-related disgusting stimuli (i.e., invertebrates like worms) and control stimuli. We found that oral-related disgust pictures suppressed tM1 cortico-hypoglossal output. This tM1 suppression was predicted by interindividual differences in disgust sensitivity. No similar suppression was found for disgusting invertebrates or when MEPs were recorded from a control muscle. These findings suggest that revulsion-eliciting food pictures triggers anticipatory inhibition mechanisms, possibly preventing toxin swallowing and contamination. A similar suppression is elicited when viewing distaste expressions, suggesting vicarious motor inhibition during social perception of disgust. Our study suggests an avoidant-defensive mechanism in human cortico-hypoglossal circuits and its 'resonant' activation in the vicarious experience of others' distaste. These findings support a role for the motor system in emotion-driven motor anticipation and social cognition.

Original languageEnglish
JournalSocial Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - Sep 10 2016


  • Journal Article


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