Anxiety Youth vs Healthy Youth: Threat-Anticipatory Psychophysiological Response Differences

Research Paper Title

Threat-anticipatory psychophysiological response is enhanced in youth with anxiety disorders and correlates with prefrontal cortex neuroanatomy.

Background

Threat anticipation engages neural circuitry that has evolved to promote defensive behaviours; perturbations in this circuitry could generate excessive threat-anticipation response, a key characteristic of pathological anxiety. Research into such mechanisms in youth faces ethical and practical limitations. Here, the researchers use thermal stimulation to elicit pain-anticipatory psychophysiological response and map its correlates to brain structure among youth with anxiety and healthy youth.

Methods

Youth with anxiety (n = 25) and healthy youth (n = 25) completed an instructed threat-anticipation task in which cues predicted nonpainful or painful thermal stimulation; the researchers indexed psychophysiological response during the anticipation and experience of pain using skin conductance response. High-resolution brain-structure imaging data collected in another visit were available for 41 participants. Analyses tested whether the 2 groups differed in their psychophysiological cue-based pain-anticipatory and pain-experience responses. Analyses then mapped psychophysiological response magnitude to brain structure.

Results

Youth with anxiety showed enhanced psychophysiological response specifically during anticipation of painful stimulation (b = 0.52, p = 0.003). Across the sample, the magnitude of psychophysiological anticipatory response correlated negatively with the thickness of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (pFWE < 0.05); psychophysiological response to the thermal stimulation correlated positively with the thickness of the posterior insula (pFWE < 0.05).

Limitations: Limitations included the modest sample size and the cross-sectional design.

Conclusions

These findings show that threat-anticipatory psychophysiological response differentiates youth with anxiety from healthy youth, and they link brain structure to psychophysiological response during pain anticipation and experience. A focus on threat anticipation in research on anxiety could delineate relevant neural circuitry.

Reference

Abend, R., Bajaj, M.A., Harrwijn, A., Matsumoto, C., Michalska, K.J., Necka, E., Palacios-Barrios, E.E., Leibenluft, E., Atlas, L.Y. & Pine, D.S. (2021) Threat-anticipatory psychophysiological response is enhanced in youth with anxiety disorders and correlates with prefrontal cortex neuroanatomy. Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience. 46(2):E212-E221. doi: 10.1503/jpn.200110.

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