Neural correlates of individual differences in anxiety sensitivity: an fMRI study using semantic priming

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Individuals with high anxiety sensitivity (AS) have an increased risk of developing anxiety disorders and are more biased in how they process fear-related stimuli. This study investigates the neural correlates of fear-related words and word associations in high- and low-AS individuals. We used a semantic priming paradigm during functional magnetic resonance imaging in which three types of target words (fear symptoms, e.g. ‘dizziness’; neutral, e.g. ‘drink’; and pseudowords, e.g. ‘salkom’) were preceded by two types of prime words (fear-triggers, e.g. ‘elevator’; and neutral, e.g. ‘bottle’). Subjects with high AS rated fear-symptom words (vs neutral words) as more unpleasant than low-AS individuals; they also related these words more strongly to fear-triggers and showed prolonged reaction times. During the processing of fear-symptom words, greater activation in the left anterior insula was observed in high-AS subjects than in low-AS subjects. Lower activation in the left inferior frontal gyrus, angular gyrus, fusiform gyrus and bilateral amygdalae was found in high-AS subjects when fear-symptom words were preceded by fear-trigger words. The findings suggest that cognitive biases and the anterior insula play a crucial role in high-AS individuals. Furthermore, semantic processes may contribute to high AS and the risk of developing anxiety disorders.

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