Social & Affective Neuroscience


The SANe group investigates the neural and psychological bases of social and affective processing in healthy human beings. Our aim is to research processes that allow individuals to understand, predict and respond to others. We are therefore interested in exploring empathy, theory of mind and emotions and how these are represented in the brain. To do so, we use behavioral and neuroimaging techniques, often in combination with naturalistic stimulation (e.g., movies, narratives, real social interactions).
We strongly believe in open science and commit to its principles by sharing code and data from our experiments.


  • Natural Language Processing and Emotions

  • Spontaneous Emotional Expressions during a Naturalistic Stimulation

  • Time-varying Transitions between Emotions

  • Theory of Mind and Gender Equality

  • Processing of Affect in Sensory Deprived Individuals


Principal InvestigatorAssistant Professor, PhDScholar, ResearchGate, Twitter
PostDoctoral Fellow, PhDScholar, ResearchGate, Twitter


Intersubject brain connectivity dynamics encode the stream of affect at multiple timescales

Lettieri, Handjaras, Ricciardi, Pietrini, CecchettibioRxiv, 2020. DOI: 10.1101/2020.06.06.137851
ABSTRACT: The stream of affect is the result of a constant interaction between past experiences, motivations, expectations and the unfolding of events. How the brain represents the relationship between time and affect has been hardly explored, as it requires modeling the complexity of everyday life in the laboratory. Movies condense into hours a multitude of emotional responses, synchronized across subjects and characterized by temporal dynamics alike real-world experiences. Here, using naturalistic stimulation, time-varying intersubject brain connectivity and behavioral reports, we demonstrate that connectivity strength of large-scale brain networks tracks changes in affect. The default mode network represents the pleasantness of the experience, whereas attention and control networks encode its intensity. Interestingly, these orthogonal descriptions of affect converge in right temporoparietal and fronto-polar cortex. Within these regions, the stream of affect is represented at multiple timescales by chronotopic maps, where connectivity of adjacent areas preferentially maps experiences in 3- to 11-minute segments.

Emotionotopy in the human right temporo-parietal cortex

Lettieri, Handjaras, Ricciardi, Leo, Papale, Betta, Pietrini, CecchettiNature Communications, 2019. DOI: 10.1038/s41467-019-13599-z
ABSTRACT: Humans use emotions to decipher complex cascades of internal events. However, which mechanisms link descriptions of affective states to brain activity is unclear, with evidence supporting either local or distributed processing. A biologically favorable alternative is provided by the notion of gradient, which postulates the isomorphism between functional representations of stimulus features and cortical distance. Here, we use fMRI activity evoked by an emotionally charged movie and continuous ratings of the perceived emotion intensity to reveal the topographic organization of affective states. Results show that three orthogonal and spatially overlapping gradients encode the polarity, complexity and intensity of emotional experiences in right temporo-parietal territories. The spatial arrangement of these gradients allows the brain to map a variety of affective states within a single patch of cortex. As this organization resembles how sensory regions represent psychophysical properties (e.g., retinotopy), we propose emotionotopy as a principle of emotion coding.

ROI and phobias: The effect of ROI approach on an ALE meta‐analysis of specific phobias

Gentili, Messerotti Benvenuti, Lettieri, Costa, CecchettiHuman Brain Mapping, 2019. DOI: 10.1002/hbm.24492
ABSTRACT: About 90% of fMRI findings on specific phobias (SP) include analysis of region of interest (ROI). This approach characterized by higher sensitivity may produce inflated results, particularly when findings are aggregated in meta‐analytic maps. Here, we conducted a systematic review and activation likelihood estimation (ALE) meta‐analysis on SP, testing the impact of the inclusion of ROI‐based studies. ALE meta‐analyses were carried out either including ROI‐based results or focusing on whole‐brain voxelwise studies exclusively. To assess the risk of bias in the neuroimaging field, we modified the Newcastle–Ottawa Scale (NOS) and measured the reliability of fMRI findings. Of the 31 selected investigations (564 patients and 485 controls) one‐third did not motivate ROI selection: five studies did not report an explicit rationale, whereas four did not cite any specific reference in this regard. Analyses including ROI‐based studies revealed differences between phobics and healthy subjects in several regions of the limbic circuit. However, when focusing on whole‐brain analysis, only the anterior midcingulate cortex differentiated SP from controls. Notably, 13 studies were labeled with low risk of bias according to the adapted NOS. The inclusion of ROI‐based results artificially inflates group differences in fMRI meta‐analyses. Moreover, a priori, well‐motivated selection of ROIs is desirable to improve quality and reproducibility in SP neuroimaging studies. Lastly, the use of modified NOS may represent a valuable way to assess and evaluate biases in fMRI studies: “low risk” of bias was reported for less than half of the included studies, indicating the need for better practices in fMRI.


ReMoTa: Real-time Movie Tagging

Time-varying Intersubject Functional Correlation


[2020] Lettieri - Emotionotopy in the human right temporo-parietal cortex. Annual Conference of the Italian Society of Psychophysiology and Cognitive Neuroscience, Virtual Meeting, 28 November 2020. Junior Researcher Award.

[2020] Lettieri - Brain connectivity of right temporo-parietal and frontal regions reflects dynamic properties of the affective experience. Consortium of European Research on Emotion, Granada, 5-6 June 2020. (Rescheduled beacuse of COVID-19).

[2019] Handjaras - Gradient-based analysis of cortical topography using fMRI. Satellite event of the Annual Conference of the Italian Society of Psychophysiology and Cognitive Neuroscience, Ferrara, 14 November 2019.

[2019] Cecchetti - Decoding brain activity: classification accuracy and related issues. Satellite event of the Annual Conference of the Italian Society of Psychophysiology and Cognitive Neuroscience, Ferrara, 14 November 2019.

[2019] Lettieri - Emotional experience timecourse explains brain connectivity dynamics during naturalistic stimulation. Organization for Human Brain Mapping, Rome, 9-13 June 2019. OHBM Merit Award.

[2018] Lettieri - Perceived emotional experience explains brain activity elicited by an emotionally-charged movie in an independent sample. Annual Conference of the Italian Society of Psychophysiology and Cognitive Neuroscience, Turin, 15-17 November 2018. Best Oral Presentation.

[2018] Lettieri - Emotions induced by naturalistic stimuli explain right hemisphere activity in an independent sample. Organization for Human Brain Mapping, Singapore, 17-21 June 2018.


Claudio Gentili - Università degli Studi di Padova (Italy)

Ioana Alina Cristea - Università degli Studi di Pavia (Italy)

Francesca Garbarini - Università degli Studi di Torino (Italy)

Olivier Collignon - Université Catholique de Louvain (Belgium)