Selective effects of social anxiety, anxiety sensitivity, and negative affectivity on the neural bases of emotional face processing

Neuroimage. 2012 Jan 16;59(2):1879-87. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.08.074. Epub 2011 Sep 2.


Individuals with high anxiety show heightened neural activation in affective processing regions, including the amygdala and insula. Activations have been shown to be correlated with anxiety severity, but although anxiety is a heterogeneous state, prior studies have not systematically disentangled whether neural activity in affective processing circuitry is uniquely related to specific domains of anxiety. Forty-five young adults were tested on an emotional face processing task during functional magnetic resonance imaging. Participants completed the Social Interactional Anxiety Scale, Anxiety Sensitivity Index, and Spielberger Trait Anxiety Inventory. Using a robust multiple regression approach, we examined the effects of social anxiety, anxiety sensitivity, and trait anxiety (which overlapped with depressive symptoms, and can therefore be considered a measure of negative affectivity) on activation in insula, amygdala, and medial prefrontal cortex, in response to emotional faces. Adjusting for negative affectivity and anxiety sensitivity, social anxiety was associated with activity in left amygdala, right insula, and subgenual anterior cingulate across all emotional faces. When comparing negative and positive faces directly, greater negative affectivity was uniquely associated with less activity to positive faces in left amygdala, left anterior insula, and dorsal anterior cingulate. The current findings support the hypothesis that hyperactivity in brain areas during general emotional face processing is predominantly a function of social anxiety. In comparison, hypoactivity to positively valenced faces was predominantly associated with negative affectivity. Implications for the understanding of emotion processing in anxiety are discussed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Affect*
  • Anxiety / physiopathology*
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Emotional Intelligence*
  • Emotions*
  • Facial Expression*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Nerve Net / physiopathology*
  • Social Alienation*
  • Young Adult