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Irritability and anxiety frequently co-occur in pediatric populations. Studies separately looking at the neural correlates of these symptoms have identified engagement of similar neural systems – particularly those implicated in emotional processing. Both irritability and anxiety can be considered negative valence emotional states that might relate to emotion dysregulation. However, previous work has not examined the neural responding during the performance of an emotion regulation task as a function of interaction between irritability and anxiety simultaneously.
This fMRI study involved 155 participants (90 with significant psychopathologies and 92 male) who performed the Affective Stroop Task, designed to engage emotion regulation as a function of task demands. The Affective Reactivity Index (ARI) was used to index irritability and the Screen for Child Anxiety Related Emotional Disorders (SCARED) was used to index anxiety.
Levels of irritability, but not anxiety, was positively correlated with responses to visual images within the right rostro-medial prefrontal cortex and left anterior cingulate cortex during view trials. The second region of ventral anterior cingulate cortex showed a condition-by-emotion-by-ARI score-by-SCARED score interaction. Specifically, anxiety level was significantly correlated with a decreased differential BOLD response to negative relative to neutral view trials but only in the presence of relatively high irritability.
Atypical maintenance of emotional stimuli within the rostro-medial prefrontal cortex may exacerbate the difficulties faced by adolescents with irritability. Moreover, increased anxiety combined with significant irritability may disrupt an automatic emotional conflict-based form of emotion regulation that is particularly associated with the ventral anterior cingulate cortex.
Previous work has shown that amygdala responsiveness to fearful expressions is inversely related to level of callous-unemotional (CU) traits (i.e. reduced guilt and empathy) in youth with conduct problems. However, some research has suggested that the relationship between pathophysiology and CU traits may be different in those youth with significant prior trauma exposure.
In experiment 1, 72 youth with varying levels of disruptive behavior and trauma exposure performed a gender discrimination task while viewing morphed fear expressions (0, 50, 100, 150 fear) and Blood Oxygenation Level Dependent responses were recorded. In experiment 2, 66 of these youth performed the Social Goals Task, which measures self-reports of the importance of specific social goals to the participant in provoking social situations.
In experiment 1, a significant CU traits-by-trauma exposure interaction was observed within right amygdala; fear intensity-modulated amygdala responses negatively predicted CU traits for those youth with low levels of trauma but positively predicted CU traits for those with high levels of trauma. In experiment 2, a bootstrapped model revealed that the indirect effect of fear intensity amygdala response on social goal importance through CU traits is moderated by prior trauma exposure.
This study, while exploratory, indicates that the pathophysiology associated with CU traits differs in youth as a function of prior trauma exposure. These data suggest that prior trauma exposure should be considered when evaluating potential interventions for youth with high CU traits.
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