Research suggests that individuals with anxiety have difficulty ignoring threat distractors when completing tasks with competing stimuli. Studies examining the neural correlates of these emotional processing difficulties in youth anxiety highlight reduced recruitment of regions associated with goal-directed attention, such as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). In the current study, we examined neural activation during an emotional conflict task in youth with anxiety disorders before and after treatment.
Twenty-five youth (ages 9-19 years) with generalized, separation, and/or social anxiety disorder and 25 healthy controls underwent 2 functional magnetic resonance imaging scans approximately 13 weeks apart. At each scan, participants completed a task in which they matched shapes in the context of emotional distractors (happy and threatening faces). Between scans, anxious youth were treated with the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) sertraline or cognitive behavior therapy (CBT).
Prior to treatment, anxious youth exhibited reduced activation of the medial prefrontal cortex, encompassing the rostral ACC, when matching shapes in the context of threat distractors relative to healthy controls. Activation in this region increased in anxious youth after treatment, but remained unchanged in the healthy control group. Increases in rostral ACC activation were related to greater reductions in social anxiety and avoidance symptoms following treatment.
Effective treatments for pediatric anxiety may enhance rostral ACC response during attempts to filter out threat-relevant stimuli. Enhanced recruitment of this region may constitute one manner in which CBT and SSRI treatment reduce youth anxiety symptoms, particularly social anxiety and avoidance.