Neural correlates of risky decision making in anxious youth and healthy controls

Depress Anxiety. 2014 Jul;31(7):591-8. doi: 10.1002/da.22276. Epub 2014 May 27.


Background: Pediatric anxiety disorders are chronic and impairing conditions that are characterized by risk aversion and avoidance; however, the neural correlates of decision making under risk in anxious youth remain poorly understood.

Methods: Youth with a primary diagnosis of separation anxiety, social phobia, or generalized anxiety disorder (n = 16) and healthy controls (n = 15), performed a risky decision-making task under conditions of potential gain or loss while undergoing a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scan.

Results: Analyses were conducted to examine neural response to risky versus nonrisky choices in each condition. Anxious youth made fewer risky choices during potential loss compared to controls. Both groups elicited strong frontostriatal activation during risky choice. During risky choice in the gain condition, controls exhibited greater activation in ventral putamen during risky choice than during nonrisky choice and than anxious youth. In the loss condition, controls exhibited greater activation in medial prefrontal cortex during risk-taking while anxious youth exhibited greater engagement of amygdala and insula. Neural activation during risky choice was associated with individual differences in anxiety symptom severity, such that as anxiety symptomatology increased, there was decreased recruitment of the ventral striatum in the gain condition and increasing recruitment of the amygdala in the loss condition.

Conclusions: Youth with anxiety disorders differ from their nonanxious peers on both behavioral and neurobiological indices during risky decision making; these differences are exacerbated by symptom severity and they shed light on the pathophysiology of pediatric anxiety. Neural correlates of risky decision making in anxious youth and healthy controls.

Keywords: adolescence; anxiety; fMRI; gains; losses; risk-taking.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adolescent Behavior / physiology*
  • Amygdala / physiology
  • Amygdala / physiopathology*
  • Anxiety Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Child
  • Choice Behavior / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiopathology*
  • Putamen / physiology
  • Putamen / physiopathology*
  • Risk-Taking*