Nonconscious attention bias to threat is correlated with anterior cingulate cortex gray matter volume: a voxel-based morphometry result and replication

Neuroimage. 2012 Jan 16;59(2):1713-8. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.09.040. Epub 2011 Sep 24.


An important aspect of the fear response is the allocation of spatial attention toward threatening stimuli. This response is so powerful that modulations in spatial attention can occur automatically without conscious awareness. Functional neuroimaging research suggests that the amygdala and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) form a network involved in the rapid orienting of attention to threat. A hyper-responsive attention bias to threat is a common component of anxiety disorders. Yet, little is known of how individual differences in underlying brain morphometry relate to variability in attention bias to threat. Here, we performed two experiments using dot-probe tasks that measured individuals' attention bias to backward masked fearful faces. We collected whole-brain structural magnetic resonance images and used voxel-based morphometry to measure brain morphometry. We tested the hypothesis that reduced gray matter within the amygdala and ACC would be associated with reduced attention bias to threat. In Experiment 1, we found that backward masked fearful faces captured spatial attention and that elevated attention bias to masked threat was associated with greater ACC gray matter volumes. In Experiment 2, this association was replicated in a separate sample. Thus, we provide initial and replicating evidence that ACC gray matter volume is correlated with biased attention to threat. Importantly, we demonstrate that variability in affective attention bias within the healthy population is associated with ACC morphometry. This result opens the door for future research into the underlying brain morphometry associated with attention bias in clinically anxious populations.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Fear / physiology*
  • Female
  • Gyrus Cinguli / anatomy & histology*
  • Gyrus Cinguli / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Neurons / cytology*
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Statistics as Topic
  • Unconscious, Psychology*
  • Young Adult