Research has consistently shown that control is critical to psychological functioning, with perceived lack of control considered to play a crucial role in the manifestation of symptoms in psychiatric disorders. In a model of behavioral control based on non-human animal work, Maier et al. (2006) posited that the presence of control activates areas of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), which in turn inhibit the normative stress response in the dorsal raphe nucleus and amygdala. To test Maier's model in humans, we investigated the effects of control over potent aversive stimuli by presenting video clips of snakes to 21 snake phobics who were otherwise healthy with no comorbid psychopathologies. Based on prior research documenting that disrupted neural processing during the anticipation of adverse events can be influenced by different forms of cognitive processing such as perceptions of control, analyses focused on the anticipatory activity preceding the videos. We found that phobics exhibited greater vmPFC activity during the anticipation of snake videos when they had control over whether the videos were presented as compared to when they had no control over the presentation of the videos. In addition, observed functional connectivity between the vmPFC and the amygdala is consistent with previous work documenting vmPFC inhibition of the amygdala. Our results provide evidence to support the extension of Maier's model of behavioral control to include anticipatory function in humans.
Keywords: PPI; amygdala; anticipation; controllability; fMRI; phobia; vmPFC.