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Pathological worry is a hallmark feature of generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), associated with dysfunctional emotional processing. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) is involved in the regulation of such processes, but the link between vmPFC emotional responses and pathological v. adaptive worry has not yet been examined.
To study the association between worry and vmPFC activity evoked by the processing of learned safety and threat signals.
In total, 27 unmedicated patients with GAD and 56 healthy controls (HC) underwent a differential fear conditioning paradigm during functional magnetic resonance imaging.
Compared to HC, the GAD group demonstrated reduced vmPFC activation to safety signals and no safety–threat processing differentiation. This response was positively correlated with worry severity in GAD, whereas the same variables showed a negative and weak correlation in HC.
Poor vmPFC safety–threat differentiation might characterise GAD, and its distinctive association with GAD worries suggests a neural-based qualitative difference between healthy and pathological worries.
The assessment of inter-regional functional connectivity (FC) has allowed for the description of the putative mechanism of action of treatments such as deep brain stimulation (DBS) of the nucleus accumbens in patients with obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD). Nevertheless, the possible FC alterations of other clinically-effective DBS targets have not been explored. Here we evaluated the FC patterns of the subthalamic nucleus (STN) and the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BNST) in patients with OCD, as well as their association with symptom severity.
Eighty-six patients with OCD and 104 healthy participants were recruited. A resting-state image was acquired for each participant and a seed-based analysis focused on our two regions of interest was performed using statistical parametric mapping software (SPM8). Between-group differences in FC patterns were assessed with two-sample t test models, while the association between symptom severity and FC patterns was assessed with multiple regression analyses.
In comparison with controls, patients with OCD showed: (1) increased FC between the left STN and the right pre-motor cortex, (2) decreased FC between the right STN and the lenticular nuclei, and (3) increased FC between the left BNST and the right frontopolar cortex. Multiple regression analyses revealed a negative association between clinical severity and FC between the right STN and lenticular nucleus.
This study provides a neurobiological framework to understand the mechanism of action of DBS on the STN and the BNST, which seems to involve brain circuits related with motor response inhibition and anxiety control, respectively.
The size of particular sub-regions within the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) has been associated with fear extinction in humans. Exposure therapy is a form of extinction learning widely used in the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Here we investigated the relationship between morphometric measurements of different sub-regions of the vmPFC and exposure therapy outcome in OCD.
A total of 74 OCD patients and 86 healthy controls underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Cortical thickness and volumetric measurements were obtained for the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC), the medial orbital frontal cortex and the subcallosal cortex. After MRI acquisition, patients were enrolled in an exposure therapy protocol, and we assessed the relationship between MRI-derived measurements and treatment outcome. Baseline between-group differences for such measurements were also assessed.
Compared with healthy controls, OCD patients showed a thinner left rACC (p = 0.008). Also, left rACC thickness was inversely associated with exposure therapy outcome (r – 0.32, p = 0.008), and this region was significantly thinner in OCD patients who responded to exposure therapy than in those who did not (p = 0.006). Analyses based on regional volumetry did not yield any significant results.
OCD patients showed cortical thickness reductions in the left rACC, and these alterations were related to exposure therapy outcome. The precise characterization of neuroimaging predictors of treatment response derived from the study of the brain areas involved in fear extinction may optimize exposure therapy planning in OCD and other anxiety disorders.
Distorted images of the observable self are considered crucial in the development and maintenance of social anxiety. We generated an experimental situation in which participants viewed themselves from an observer's perspective when exposed to scrutiny and evaluation by others.
Twenty patients with social anxiety disorder (SAD) and 20 control subjects were assessed using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) during the public exposure of pre-recorded videos in which they were each shown performing a verbal task. The examiners acted as the audience in the experiment and rated performance. Whole-brain functional maps were computed using Statistical Parametric Mapping.
Robust activation was observed in regions related to self-face recognition, emotional response and general arousal in both study groups. Patients showed significantly greater activation only in the primary visual cortex. By contrast, they showed significant deactivation or smaller activation in dorsal frontoparietal and anterior cingulate cortices relevant to the cognitive control of negative emotion. Task-related anxiety ratings revealed a pattern of negative correlation with activation in this frontoparietal/cingulate network. Importantly, the relationship between social anxiety scores and neural response showed an inverted-U function with positive correlations in the lower score range and negative correlations in the higher range.
Our findings suggest that exposure to scrutiny and evaluation in SAD may be associated with changes in cortical systems mediating the cognitive components of anxiety. Disorder severity seems to be relevant in shaping the neural response pattern, which is distinctively characterized by a reduced cortical response in the most severe cases.
Social anxiety often involves a combination of hypervigilance and avoidance to potentially warning signals including the facial expression of emotions. Functional imaging has demonstrated an increase in amygdala response to emotional faces in subjects with social anxiety. Nevertheless, it is unclear to what extent visual areas processing faces influence amygdala reactivity in different socially anxious individuals. We assessed the influence of the fusiform gyrus activation on amygdala response to emotional faces in the non-clinical range of social anxiety.
Twenty-two normal subjects showing a wide range in social anxiety scores were examined using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) during the processing of happy and fearful faces. A dimensional analysis approach was used involving voxel-wise mapping of the correlation between subjects' social anxiety scores and amygdala activation, before and after controlling for fusiform gyrus activation.
We observed that only after controlling for subjects' level of activation of the fusiform gyrus was there an association between social anxiety ratings and amygdala response to both happy and fearful faces. The fusiform gyrus influence was more robust during the fear condition. Of note, fusiform gyrus response to fearful faces showed a negative correlation with additional behavioral assessments related to avoidance, including social anxiety scores, harm avoidance and sensitivity to punishment.
Relevant interactions among the emotional face-processing stages exist in the non-clinical range of social anxiety that may ultimately attenuate amygdala responses. Future research will help to establish the role of this effect in a clinical context.
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