Emotional imagery: Assessing pleasure and arousal in the brain's reward circuitry

Vincent D. Costa, Peter J. Lang, Dean Sabatinelli, Francesco Versace, Margaret M. Bradley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

127 Scopus citations


Research on emotional perception and learning indicates appetitive cues engage nucleus accumbens (NAc) and medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), whereas amygdala activity is modulated by the emotional intensity of appetitive and aversive cues. This study sought to determine patterns of functional activation and connectivity among these regions during narrative emotional imagery. Using event-related fMRI, we investigate activation of these structures when participants vividly imagine pleasant, neutral, and unpleasant scenes. Results indicate that pleasant imagery selectively activates NAc and mPFC, whereas amygdala activation was enhanced during both pleasant and unpleasant imagery. NAc and mPFC activity were each correlated with the rated pleasure of the imagined scenes, while amygdala activity was correlated with rated emotional arousal. Functional connectivity of NAc and mPFC was evident throughout imagery, regardless of hedonic content, while correlated activation of the amygdala with NAc and mPFC was specific to imagining pleasant scenes. These findings provide strong evidence that pleasurable text-driven imagery engages a core appetitive circuit, including NAc, mPFC, and the amygdala.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1446-1457
Number of pages12
JournalHuman Brain Mapping
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • Liking
  • Mental imagery
  • Mesocorticolimbic
  • Psychophysiological interaction
  • Script-driven imagery
  • Ventral medial prefrontal cortex
  • Ventral striatum

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anatomy
  • Radiological and Ultrasound Technology
  • Radiology Nuclear Medicine and imaging
  • Neurology
  • Clinical Neurology


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