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Childhood emotional maltreatment (CEM) increases the likelihood of developing an anxiety disorder in adulthood, but the neural processes underlying conferment of this risk have not been established. Here, we test the potential for neuroimaging the adult brain to inform understanding of the mechanism linking CEM to adult anxiety symptoms.
One hundred eighty-two adults (148 females, 34 males) with a normal-to-clinical range of anxiety symptoms underwent structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging while completing an emotion-processing paradigm with facial expressions of fear, anger, and happiness. Participants completed self-report measures of CEM and current anxiety symptoms. Voxelwise mediation analyses on gray-matter volumes and activation to each emotion condition were used to identify candidate brain mechanisms relating CEM to anxiety in adulthood.
During processing of fear and anger faces, greater amygdala and less right dorsolateral prefrontal (dlPFC) activation partially mediated the positive relationship between CEM and anxiety symptoms. Greater right posterior insula activation to fear also partially mediated this relationship, as did greater ventral anterior cingulate (ACC) and less dorsal ACC activation to anger. Responses to happy faces in these regions did not mediate the CEM-anxiety relationship. Smaller right dlPFC gray-matter volumes also partially mediated the CEM-anxiety relationship.
Activation patterns of the adult brain demonstrate the potential to inform mechanistic accounts of the CEM conferment of anxiety symptoms. Results support the hypothesis that exaggerated limbic activation to negative valence facial emotions links CEM to anxiety symptoms, which may be consequent to a breakdown of cortical regulatory processes.
The mechanisms that contribute to emotion dysregulation in anxiety disorders are not well understood. Two common disorders, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and panic disorder (PD), were examined to test the hypothesis that both disorders are characterized by hypo-activation in prefrontal cortex (PFC) during emotion regulation. A competing hypothesis that GAD in particular is characterized by PFC hyper-activation during emotion regulation (reflecting overactive top-down control) was also evaluated.
Twenty-two medication-free healthy control (HC), 23 GAD, and 18 PD participants underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) during a task that required them to reappraise (i.e. reduce) or maintain emotional responses to negative images.
GAD participants reported the least reappraisal use in daily life, and reappraisal use was inversely associated with anxiety severity and functional impairment in these participants. During fMRI, HCs demonstrated greater activation during both reappraisal and maintenance than either GAD or PD participants (who did not differ) in brain areas important for emotion regulation (e.g. dorsolateral and dorsomedial PFC). Furthermore, across all anxious participants, activation during reappraisal in dorsolateral and dorsomedial PFC was inversely associated with anxiety severity and functional impairment.
Emotion dysregulation in GAD and PD may be the consequence of PFC hypo-activation during emotion regulation, consistent with insufficient top-down control. The relationship between PFC hypo-activation and functional impairment suggests that the failure to engage PFC during emotion regulation may be part of the critical transition from dispositionally high anxiety to an anxiety disorder.
Much about the long-term course of anxiety disorders is unknown. The present study utilizes a naturalistic, longitudinal, short-interval follow-up design to elucidate the course of anxiety disorders over 14 years in a largely middle-aged adult sample recruited from out-patient psychiatry and primary care facilities.
The sample consisted of 453 participants with a diagnosis of panic disorder (PD), social phobia (SP) and/or generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Anxiety symptom ratings were tracked using weekly psychiatric status ratings (PSRs). Controlling for demographic and clinical variables, the course of PD, GAD and SP were examined using longitudinal growth models, with the most severe PSR at each follow-up point as the main outcome variable.
PSRs significantly decreased in severity over time in each of the three disorders. In the interaction effects models, age×time had a significant effect on course for PD and GAD, but not for SP, in that older age was associated with lower PSRs over time.
The present findings suggest that the severity of anxiety disorders declines over time, although this decline is modest and depends on the specific disorder being assessed. Older individuals with PD and GAD have a better prognosis than their younger counterparts, as their course is characterized by a steeper decline in severity. The present findings provide important information about the course of anxiety disorders in mid-life.
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