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Subclinical delusional ideas, including persecutory beliefs, in otherwise healthy individuals are heritable symptoms associated with increased risk for psychotic illness, possibly representing an expression of one end of a continuum of psychosis severity. The identification of variation in brain function associated with these symptoms may provide insights about the neurobiology of delusions in clinical psychosis.
A resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging scan was collected from 131 young adults with a wide range of severity of subclinical delusional beliefs, including persecutory ideas. Because of evidence for a key role of the amygdala in fear and paranoia, resting-state functional connectivity of the amygdala was measured.
Connectivity between the amygdala and early visual cortical areas, including striate cortex (V1), was found to be significantly greater in participants with high (n = 43) v. low (n = 44) numbers of delusional beliefs, particularly in those who showed persistence of those beliefs. Similarly, across the full sample, the number of and distress associated with delusional beliefs were positively correlated with the strength of amygdala-visual cortex connectivity. Moreover, further analyses revealed that these effects were driven by those who endorsed persecutory beliefs.
These findings are consistent with the hypothesis that aberrant assignments of threat to sensory stimuli may lead to the downstream development of delusional ideas. Taken together with prior findings of disrupted sensory-limbic coupling in psychosis, these results suggest that altered amygdala-visual cortex connectivity could represent a marker of psychosis-related pathophysiology across a continuum of symptom severity.
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