Background: Conditioning processes have been proposed to play a role in the development of anxiety disorders. As yet, the neurobiologic correlates of emotional learning have not been fully understood in these patients. Accordingly, brain activity was studied in subcortical and cortical regions involved in the processing of negative affect during differential aversive classical conditioning.
Methods: Twelve patients with social phobia and 12 healthy control subjects were presented with paired conditioned (CS; neutral facial expressions) and unconditioned stimuli (US; negative odor vs unmanipulated air). Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was utilized to examine regional cerebral activity during habituation, acquisition,a nd extinction trials. Activity was measured with echo-planar-imaging (EPI), and signal intensity in individually defined anatomic regions were analyzed.
Results: Subjective ratings of emotional valence to the CS indicated that behavioral conditioning occurred in both groups. The presentation of CS associated with negative odor led to signal decreases in the amygdala and hippocampus of normal subjects, whereas an opposite increased activation in both regions was observed in patients. Regional differences were not found during habituation and extinction.
Conclusions: Results suggest that conditioned aversive stimuli are processed in subcortical regions, with phobic patients differing from control subjects.