Inter-individual differences in trait anxiety shape the functional connectivity between the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis and the amygdala during brief threat processing

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An influential framework suggests that the central nucleus of the amygdala (CeA) is involved in phasic responses to threat, while the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BNST) mediates sustained anxiety. However, this model has been questioned, proposing that the role of the BNST is not limited to sustained threat contexts. Rather, amygdala and BNST also seem to work in concert in the processing of discrete and briefly presented threat-related stimuli, likely dependent on inter-individual differences in anxiety. A direct test of this assumption with sufficient experimental power is missing in human research and the degree to which individual differences in trait anxiety moderate phasic responses and functional connectivity of amygdala and BNST during threat processing remains unclear. The current event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study investigated activation and connectivity of amygdala and BNST, as well as modulating effects of trait anxiety, during processing of briefly presented threat-related relative to neutral standardized pictures in 93 psychiatrically healthy individuals. Both amygdala and BNST activation was increased during presentation of threat-related relative to neutral pictures. Furthermore, functional connectivity between BNST and amygdala in response to threat was positively associated with trait anxiety. These findings suggest that amygdala and BNST form a functional unit during phasic threat processing whereby their connectivity is shaped by inter-individual differences in trait anxiety.

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