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There is an ongoing debate whether transdiagnostic neural mechanisms are shared by different anxiety-related disorders or whether different disorders show distinct neural correlates. To investigate this issue, studies controlling for design and stimuli across multiple anxiety-related disorders are needed.
The present functional magnetic resonance imaging study investigated neural correlates of visual disorder-related threat processing across unmedicated patients suffering from panic disorder (n = 20), social anxiety disorder (n = 20), dental phobia (n = 16) and post-traumatic stress disorder (n = 11) relative to healthy controls (HC; n = 67). Each patient group and the corresponding HC group saw a tailor-made picture set with 50 disorder-related and 50 neutral scenes.
Across all patients, increased activation to disorder-related v. neutral scenes was found in subregions of the bilateral amygdala. In addition, activation of the lateral amygdala to disorder-related v. neutral scenes correlated positively with subjective anxiety ratings of scenes across patients. Furthermore, whole-brain analysis revealed increased responses to disorder-related threat across the four disorders in middle, medial and superior frontal regions, (para-)limbic regions, such as the insula and thalamus, as well as in the brainstem and occipital lobe. We found no disorder-specific brain responses.
The results suggest that pathologically heightened lateral amygdala activation is linked to experienced anxiety across anxiety disorders and trauma- and stressor-related disorders. Furthermore, the transdiagnostically shared activation network points to a common neural basis of abnormal responses to disorder-related threat stimuli across the four investigated disorders.
Fear conditioning involves the amygdala as the main neural structure for learning fear responses whereas fear extinction mainly activates the inhibitory prefrontal cortex (PFC). In this study we investigated whether individual differences in trait anxiety affect amygdala and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) activation during fear conditioning and extinction.
Thirty-two healthy subjects were investigated by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) at 3 T while performing a cued fear-conditioning task. All participants completed the trait version of the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI-T). Activations of the amygdala and the dACC were examined with respect to the effects of trait anxiety.
Analysis of the fMRI data demonstrated enhanced activation in fear-related brain areas, such as the insula and the ACC, during both fear conditioning and extinction. Activation of the amygdala appeared only during the late acquisition phase whereas deactivation was observed during extinction. Regression analyses revealed that highly trait-anxious subjects exhibited sustained amygdala activation and reduced dACC involvement during the extinction of conditioned responses.
This study reveals that high levels of trait anxiety are associated with both increased amygdala activation and reduced dACC recruitment during the extinction of conditioned fear. This hyper-responsitivity of the amygdala and the deficient cognitive control during the extinction of conditioned fear in anxious subjects reflect an increased resistance to extinct fear responses and may thereby enhance the vulnerability to developing anxiety disorders.
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