Trait anxiety modulates anterior cingulate activation to threat interference


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Background: Individuals vary in the degree to which salient threatening stimuli disrupt or distract from goal-directed cognitive processes. Excessive attention to threat or difficulty resolving the interference created by threat cues could contribute to anxious psychopathology; disruptions in frontal brain regions implicated in attentional control or resolution of emotional interference (e.g. anterior cingulate cortex, “ACC”) might play a role. In this study, we explored the hypothesis that trait anxiety would be associated with ACC activity in an attentional control task with varying levels of threat interference. Methods: During functional magnetic resonance imaging, 20 healthy individuals who varied in trait anxiety levels viewed angry, fearful, and neutral faces superimposed on an indoor or outdoor scene. In a high-threat interference condition, subjects identified the gender of the face (Attend Face). In a low-threat interference condition, they identified the scene type (Attend Scene). Whole-brain analysis was used to compare Attend Face with Attend Scene for angry and fearful (versus neutral) faces. Contrasts were correlated with trait anxiety level. Results: Behavioral data confirmed that Attend Face produced greater threat interference than Attend Scene. Brain imaging results showed that trait anxiety was inversely associated with bilateral rostral ACC activity for Attend Face relative to Attend Scene for angry faces. A similar relationship was not seen for fearful faces. Conclusions: The rostral ACC is implicated in assessing the salience of emotional information and controlling attention to resolve emotional interference. The link between higher trait anxiety and decreased ACC activation for angry faces suggests reduced attentional control for signals of interpersonal threat in healthy anxiety-prone individuals. Depression and Anxiety 28:194–201, 2011. © 2011 Wiley-Liss, Inc.