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Increased neural error-signals have been observed in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety disorders, and inconsistently in depression. Reduced neural error-signals have been observed in substance use disorders (SUD). Thus, alterations in error-monitoring are proposed as a transdiagnostic endophenotype. To strengthen this notion, data from unaffected individuals with a family history for the respective disorders are needed.
The error-related negativity (ERN) as a neural indicator of error-monitoring was measured during a flanker task from 117 OCD patients, 50 unaffected first-degree relatives of OCD patients, and 130 healthy comparison participants. Family history information indicated, that 76 healthy controls were free of a family history for psychopathology, whereas the remaining had first-degree relatives with depression (n = 28), anxiety (n = 27), and/or SUD (n = 27).
Increased ERN amplitudes were found in OCD patients and unaffected first-degree relatives of OCD patients. In addition, unaffected first-degree relatives of individuals with anxiety disorders were also characterized by increased ERN amplitudes, whereas relatives of individuals with SUD showed reduced amplitudes.
Alterations in neural error-signals in unaffected first-degree relatives with a family history of OCD, anxiety, or SUD support the utility of the ERN as a transdiagnostic endophenotype. Reduced neural error-signals may indicate vulnerability for under-controlled behavior and risk for substance use, whereas a harm- or error-avoidant response style and vulnerability for OCD and anxiety appears to be associated with increased ERN. This adds to findings suggesting a common neurobiological substrate across psychiatric disorders involving the anterior cingulate cortex and deficits in cognitive control.
Cognitive models of obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD) posit dysfunctional appraisal of disorder-relevant stimuli in patients, suggesting disturbances in the processes relying on amygdala–prefrontal connectivity. Recent neuroanatomical models add to the traditional view of dysfunction in corticostriatal circuits by proposing alterations in an affective circuit including amygdala–prefrontal connections. However, abnormalities in amygdala–prefrontal coupling during symptom provocation, and particularly during conditions that require stimulus appraisal, remain to be demonstrated directly.
Amygdala–prefrontal connectivity was examined in unmedicated OCD patients during appraisal (v. distraction) of symptom-provoking stimuli compared with an emotional control condition. Subsequent analyses tested whether hypothesized connectivity alterations could be also identified during passive viewing and the resting state in two independent samples.
During symptom provocation, reductions in positive coupling between amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex were observed in OCD patients relative to healthy control participants during appraisal and passive viewing of OCD-relevant stimuli, whereas abnormally high amygdala–ventromedial prefrontal cortex coupling was found when appraisal was distracted by a secondary task. In contrast, there were no group differences in amygdala connectivity at rest.
Our finding of abnormal amygdala–prefrontal connectivity during appraisal of symptom-related (relative to generally aversive) stimuli is consistent with the involvement of affective circuits in the functional neuroanatomy of OCD. Aberrant connectivity can be assumed to impact stimulus appraisal and emotion regulation, but might also relate to fear extinction deficits, which have recently been described in OCD. Taken together, we propose to integrate abnormalities in amygdala–prefrontal coupling in affective models of OCD.
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