Is there less to social anxiety than meets the eye? Behavioral and neural responses to three socio-emotional tasks

Biol Mood Anxiety Disord. 2013 Mar 1;3(1):5. doi: 10.1186/2045-5380-3-5.


Background: Social anxiety disorder (SAD) is widely thought to be characterized by heightened behavioral and limbic reactivity to socio-emotional stimuli. However, although behavioral findings are clear, neural findings are surprisingly mixed.

Methods: Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we examined behavioral and brain responses in a priori emotion generative regions of interest (amygdala and insula) in 67 patients with generalized SAD and in 28 healthy controls (HC) during three distinct socio-emotional tasks. We administered these socio-emotional tasks during one fMRI scanning session: 1) looming harsh faces (Faces); 2) videotaped actors delivering social criticism (Criticism); and 3) written negative self-beliefs (Beliefs).

Results: In each task, SAD patients reported heightened negative emotion, compared to HC. There were, however, no SAD versus HC differential brain responses in the amygdala and insula. Between-group whole-brain analyses confirmed no group differences in the responses of the amygdala and insula, and indicated different brain networks activated during each of the tasks. In SAD participants, social anxiety symptom severity was associated with increased BOLD signal in the left insula during the Faces task.

Conclusions: The similar responses in amygdala and insula in SAD and HC participants suggest that heightened negative emotion responses reported by patients with SAD may be related to dysfunction in higher cognitive processes (e.g., distorted appraisal, attention biases, or ineffective cognitive reappraisal). In addition, the findings of this study emphasize the differential effects of socio-emotional experimental tasks.