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Trait anxiety and impoverished prefrontal control of attention

Abstract

Many neurocognitive models of anxiety emphasize the importance of a hyper-responsive threat-detection system centered on the amygdala, with recent accounts incorporating a role for prefrontal mechanisms in regulating attention to threat. Here we investigated whether trait anxiety is associated with a much broader dysregulation of attentional control. Volunteers performed a response-conflict task under conditions that posed high or low demands on attention. High trait-anxious individuals showed reduced prefrontal activity and slower target identification in response to processing competition when the task did not fully occupy attentional resources. The relationship between trait anxiety and prefrontal recruitment remained after controlling for state anxiety. These findings indicate that trait anxiety is linked to impoverished recruitment of prefrontal attentional control mechanisms to inhibit distractor processing even when threat-related stimuli are absent. Notably, this deficit was observed when ongoing task-related demands on attention were low, potentially explaining the day-to-day difficulties in concentration that are associated with clinical anxiety.

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Figure 1: Example stimuli.
Figure 2: DLPFC activity to incongruent – congruent distractors under low versus high perceptual load against STAI trait anxiety.
Figure 3: Neural regions showing increased activation under conditions of high versus low perceptual load.
Figure 4: PFC activity and target identification reaction times and error rates for the high and low perceptual-load blocks as a function of STAI trait anxiety.
Figure 5: Participant mean reaction times as a function of distractor congruency (congruent, incongruent) and perceptual load (low, high).

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Acknowledgements

Thanks go to J. Duncan for comments on a draft manuscript, radiographers H. Lloyd and S. Eldridge for assistance with fMRI data collection, and to S. Strangeways for assistance with figure preparation. This work was funded by the UK Medical Research Council through a Medical Research Council Career Development Award (G120/919) held at the University of Cambridge Behavioral and Clinical Neuroscience Institute, with additional resources being provided by the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit.

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Correspondence to Sonia J Bishop.

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Bishop, S. Trait anxiety and impoverished prefrontal control of attention. Nat Neurosci 12, 92–98 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/nn.2242

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