Background: Anxiety Sensitivity (AS), the tendency to fear the thoughts, symptoms, and social consequences associated with the experience of anxiety, is associated with increased risk for developing anxiety disorders. Some evidence suggests that higher scores on the Anxiety Sensitivity Index (ASI), a measure of the AS construct, are associated with activation of the anterior insular cortex during overt emotion perception. Although the ASI provides subscale scores measuring Physical, Mental Incapacitation, and Social Concerns of AS, no study has examined the relationship between these factors and regional brain activation during affect processing. We hypothesized that insular responses to fear-related stimuli would be primarily related to the Physical Concerns subscale of the ASI, particularly for a sample of subjects with specific phobias.
Methods: Adult healthy controls (HC; n = 22) and individuals with specific phobia, small animal subtype (SAP; n = 17), completed the ASI and underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging while engaged in a backward-masked affect perception task that presents emotional facial stimuli below the threshold of conscious perception.
Results: Groups did not differ in ASI, state or trait anxiety scores, or insula activation. Total ASI scores were positively correlated with activation in the right middle/anterior insula for the combined sample and for the HC and SAP groups separately. Multiple regression analysis revealed that the relationship between AS and insular activation was primarily accounted for by Physical Concerns only.
Conclusions: Findings support the hypothesized role of the right anterior insula in the visceral/interoceptive aspects of AS, even in response to masked affective stimuli.
© 2011 Wiley-Liss, Inc.