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OBJECTIVE: The anticipation of adverse outcomes, or worry, is a cardinal symptom of generalized anxiety disorder. Prior work with healthy subjects has shown that anticipating aversive events recruits a network of brain regions, including the amygdala and anterior cingulate cortex. This study tested whether patients with generalized anxiety disorder have alterations in anticipatory amygdala function and whether anticipatory activity in the anterior cingulate cortex predicts treatment response. METHOD: Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was employed with 14 generalized anxiety disorder patients and 12 healthy comparison subjects matched for age, sex, and education. The event-related fMRI paradigm was composed of one warning cue that preceded aversive pictures and a second cue that preceded neutral pictures. Following the fMRI session, patients received 8 weeks of treatment with extended-release venlafaxine. RESULTS: Patients with generalized anxiety disorder showed greater anticipatory activity than healthy comparison subjects in the bilateral dorsal amygdala preceding both aversive and neutral pictures. Building on prior reports of pretreatment anterior cingulate cortex activity predicting treatment response, anticipatory activity in that area was associated with clinical outcome 8 weeks later following treatment with venlafaxine. Higher levels of pretreatment anterior cingulate cortex activity in anticipation of both aversive and neutral pictures were associated with greater reductions in anxiety and worry symptoms. CONCLUSIONS: These findings of heightened and indiscriminate amygdala responses to anticipatory signals in generalized anxiety disorder and of anterior cingulate cortex associations with treatment response provide neurobiological support for the role of anticipatory processes in the pathophysiology of generalized anxiety disorder.
BACKGROUND: Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) holds promise as a noninvasive means of identifying neural responses that can be used to predict treatment response before beginning a drug trial. Imaging paradigms employing facial expressions as presented stimuli have been shown to activate the amygdala and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). Here, we sought to determine whether pretreatment amygdala and rostral ACC (rACC) reactivity to facial expressions could predict treatment outcomes in patients with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). METHODS: Fifteen subjects (12 female subjects) with GAD participated in an open-label venlafaxine treatment trial. Functional magnetic resonance imaging responses to facial expressions of emotion collected before subjects began treatment were compared with changes in anxiety following 8 weeks of venlafaxine administration. In addition, the magnitude of fMRI responses of subjects with GAD were compared with that of 15 control subjects (12 female subjects) who did not have GAD and did not receive venlafaxine treatment. RESULTS: The magnitude of treatment response was predicted by greater pretreatment reactivity to fearful faces in rACC and lesser reactivity in the amygdala. These individual differences in pretreatment rACC and amygdala reactivity within the GAD group were observed despite the fact that 1) the overall magnitude of pretreatment rACC and amygdala reactivity did not differ between subjects with GAD and control subjects and 2) there was no main effect of treatment on rACC-amygdala reactivity in the GAD group. CONCLUSIONS: These findings show that this pattern of rACC-amygdala responsivity could prove useful as a predictor of venlafaxine treatment response in patients with GAD.
We used fMRI to examine amygdala activation in response to fearful facial expressions, measured over multiple scanning sessions. 15 human subjects underwent three scanning sessions, at 0, 2 and 8 weeks. During each session, functional brain images centered about the amygdala were acquired continuously while participants were shown alternating blocks of fearful, neutral and happy facial expressions. Intraclass correlation coefficients calculated across the sessions indicated stability of response in left amygdala to fearful faces (as a change from baseline), but considerably less left amygdala stability in responses to neutral expressions and for fear versus neutral contrasts. The results demonstrate that the measurement of fMRI BOLD responses in amygdala to fearful facial expressions might be usefully employed as an index of amygdala reactivity over extended periods. While signal change to fearful facial expressions appears robust, the experimental design employed here has yielded variable responsivity within baseline or comparison conditions. Future studies might manipulate the experimental design to either amplify or attenuate this variability, according to the goals of the research.