Brain activation during anticipation of interoceptive threat

Neuroimage. 2012 Jul 16;61(4):857-65. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2012.03.019. Epub 2012 Mar 14.


The current study investigated the neural networks activated during the anticipation of potentially threatening body symptoms evoked by a guided hyperventilation task in a group of participants reporting either high or low fear of unexplained somatic sensations. 15 subjects reporting high and 14 subjects reporting low fear of somatic symptoms first learned that one of two cues predicted the occurrence of a hyperventilation task reliably producing body symptoms in all participants that were rated as more intense and unpleasant in the high fear group. During anticipation of unpleasant symptoms, high fear participants reported more intense body symptoms and showed potentiation of the startle reflex. After this learning session, participants were taken into the fMRI where the same cues either predicted the occurrence of hyperventilation or normoventilation, although the task was never performed in the scanner. During anticipation of hyperventilation all participants showed an increased activation of anterior insula/orbitofrontal cortex and rostral parts of the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex/dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dACC/dmPFC). Brain activation of high compared to low fear participants differed in two ways. First, high fear participants showed an overall stronger activation of this network during threat and safe conditions indexing stronger anxious apprehension during the entire context. Second, while low fear participants no longer responded with stronger activation to the threat cue after experiencing that the hyperventilation challenge did not follow this cue, high fear participants continued to show stronger activation of the network to this cue. Activation of the rostral dACC/dmPFC was significantly correlated with reported fear of somatic symptoms. These data demonstrate that anticipation of interoceptive threat activates the same network that has been found to be active during anticipation of exteroceptive threat cues. Thus, the current paradigm might provide an innovative method to study anxious apprehension and treatment effects in patients with panic disorder.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Anticipation, Psychological / physiology*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Cues*
  • Fear / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hyperventilation / complications
  • Hyperventilation / physiopathology
  • Image Interpretation, Computer-Assisted
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Neural Pathways / physiology*
  • Young Adult