Dynamic changes in amygdala activation and functional connectivity in children and adolescents with anxiety disorders

Anxiety disorders are associated with abnormalities in amygdala function and prefrontal cortex-amygdala connectivity. The majority of functional magnetic resonance imaging studies have examined mean group differences in amygdala activation or connectivity in children and adolescents with anxiety disorders relative to controls, but emerging evidence suggests that abnormalities in amygdala function are dependent on the timing of the task and may vary across the course of a scanning session. The goal of the present study was to extend our knowledge of the dynamics of amygdala dysfunction by examining whether changes in amygdala activation and connectivity over scanning differ in pediatric anxiety disorder patients relative to typically developing controls during an emotion processing task. Examining changes in activation over time allows for a comparison of how brain function differs during initial exposure to novel stimuli versus more prolonged exposure. Participants included 34 anxiety disorder patients and 19 controls 7 to 19 years old. Participants performed an emotional face-matching task during functional magnetic resonance imaging scanning, and the task was divided into thirds in order to examine change in activation over time. Results demonstrated that patients exhibited an abnormal pattern of amygdala activation characterized by an initially heightened amygdala response relative to controls at the beginning of scanning, followed by significant decreases in activation over time. In addition, controls evidenced greater context-modulated prefrontal cortex-amygdala connectivity during the beginning of scanning relative to patients. These results indicate that differences in emotion processing between the groups vary from initial exposure to novel stimuli relative to more prolonged exposure. Implications are discussed regarding how this pattern of neural activation may relate to altered early-occurring or anticipatory emotion-regulation strategies and maladaptive later-occurring strategies in children and adolescents with anxiety disorders.