Emotion regulation in spider phobia: role of the medial prefrontal cortex

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Phobic responses are strong emotional reactions towards phobic objects, which can be described as a deficit in the automatic regulation of emotions. Difficulties in the voluntary cognitive control of these emotions suggest a further phobia-specific deficit in effortful emotion regulation mechanisms. The actual study is based on this emotion regulation conceptualization of specific phobias. The aim is to investigate the neural correlates of these two emotion regulation deficits in spider phobics. Sixteen spider phobic females participated in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study in which they were asked to voluntarily up- and down-regulate their emotions elicited by spider and generally aversive pictures with a reappraisal strategy. In line with the hypothesis concerning an automatic emotion regulation deficit, increased activity in the insula and reduced activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex was observed. Furthermore, phobia-specific effortful regulation within phobics was associated with altered activity in medial prefrontal cortex areas. Altogether, these results suggest that spider phobic subjects are indeed characterized by a deficit in the automatic as well as the effortful regulation of emotions elicited by phobic compared with aversive stimuli. These two forms of phobic emotion regulation deficits are associated with altered activity in different medial prefrontal cortex subregions.

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