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Face processing in adolescents with positive and negative threat bias

  • C. M. Sylvester (a1), S. E. Petersen (a2) (a3), J. L. Luby (a1) and D. M. Barch (a1) (a3) (a4)



Individuals with anxiety disorders exhibit a ‘vigilance-avoidance’ pattern of attention to threatening stimuli when threatening and neutral stimuli are presented simultaneously, a phenomenon referred to as ‘threat bias’. Modifying threat bias through cognitive retraining during adolescence reduces symptoms of anxiety, and so elucidating neural mechanisms of threat bias during adolescence is of high importance. We explored neural mechanisms by testing whether threat bias in adolescents is associated with generalized or threat-specific differences in the neural processing of faces.


Subjects were categorized into those with (n = 25) and without (n = 27) threat avoidance based on a dot-probe task at average age 12.9 years. Threat avoidance in this cohort has previously been shown to index threat bias. Brain response to individually presented angry and neutral faces was assessed in a separate session using functional magnetic resonance imaging.


Adolescents with threat avoidance exhibited lower activity for both angry and neutral faces relative to controls in several regions in the occipital, parietal, and temporal lobes involved in early visual and facial processing. Results generalized to happy, sad, and fearful faces. Adolescents with a prior history of depression and/or an anxiety disorder had lower activity for all faces in these same regions. A subset of results replicated in an independent dataset.


Threat bias is associated with generalized, rather than threat-specific, differences in the neural processing of faces in adolescents. Findings may aid in the development of novel treatments for anxiety disorders that use attention training to modify threat bias.


Corresponding author

*Address for correspondence: C. M. Sylvester, M.D., Ph.D., Department of Psychiatry, Washington University School of Medicine, 4444 Forest Park Avenue, Campus Box 8511, St Louis, MO, 63108, USA. (Email:


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