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Mechanisms of comorbidity, continuity, and discontinuity in anxiety-related disorders

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 October 2016

Neil McNaughton
University of Otago
Philip J. Corr
City University London
E-mail address:


We discuss comorbidity, continuity, and discontinuity of anxiety-related disorders from the perspective of a two-dimensional neuropsychology of fear (threat avoidance) and anxiety (threat approach). Pharmacological dissection of the “neurotic” disorders justifies both a categorical division between fear and anxiety and a subdivision of each mapped to a hierarchy of neural modules that process different immediacies of threat. It is critical that each module can generate normal responses, symptoms of another syndrome, or syndromal responses. We discuss the resultant possibilities for comorbid dysfunction of these modules both with each other and with some disorders not usually classified as anxiety related. The simplest case is symptomatic fear/anxiety comorbidity, where dysfunction in one module results in excess activity in a second, otherwise normal, module to generate symptoms and apparent comorbidity. More complex is syndromal fear/anxiety comorbidity, where more than one module is concurrently dysfunctional. Yet more complex are syndromal comorbidities of anxiety that go beyond the two dimensional fear/anxiety systems: depression, substance use disorder, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Our account of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder–anxiety comorbidity entails discussion of the neuropsychology of externalizing disorders to account for the lack of anxiety comorbidity in some of these. Finally, we link the neuropsychology of disorder to personality variation, and to the development of a biomarker of variation in the anxiety system among individuals that, if extreme, may provide a means of unambiguously identifying the first of a range of anxiety syndromes.

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Mechanisms of comorbidity, continuity, and discontinuity in anxiety-related disorders
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