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Anxiety can interfere with attention and working memory, which are components that affect learning. Statistical models have been designed to study learning, such as the Bayesian Learning Model, which takes into account prior possibilities and behaviors to determine how much of a new behavior is determined by learning instead of chance. However, the neurobiological basis underlying how anxiety interferes with learning is not yet known. Accordingly, we aimed to use neuroimaging techniques and apply a Bayesian Learning Model to study learning in individuals with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
Participants were 25 controls and 14 individuals with GAD and comorbid disorders. During fMRI, participants completed a shape-button association learning and reversal task. Using a flexible factorial analysis in SPM, activation in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, basal ganglia, and hippocampus were compared between groups during First Reversal. Beta values from the peak of these regions were extracted for all learning conditions and submitted to repeated measures analyses in SPSS.
Individuals with GAD showed less activation in the basal ganglia and the hippocampus only in the First Reversal compared with controls. This difference was not present in the Initial Learning and Second Reversal.
Given that the basal ganglia is associated with initial learning, and the hippocampus with transfer of knowledge from short to long term memory, our results suggest that GAD may engage these regions to a lesser extent during early accommodation or consolidation of learning, but have no longer term effects in brain activation patterns during subsequent learning.