Objective: Perturbations in emotional conflict adaptation, an implicit regulatory process, have been observed in adult anxiety disorders. However, findings remain inconsistent and restricted to adults. The current study compares conflict adaptation in youth and adults, with and without anxiety disorders. We predicted conflict adaptation would be present in the healthy but not the anxious groups.
Methods: In a clinic setting, 111 participants (27 healthy youth, 22 anxious youth, 41 healthy adults, and 21 anxious adults) completed emotional and nonemotional conflict tasks. Groups did not differ (all p's >0.1) on intelligence quotient (IQ), gender, and socioeconomic status; age did not differ between healthy and anxious subjects in either age cohort. Separate four way mixed-design analyses of variance were conducted to test hypotheses regarding the influence of diagnosis, age group, and task type on accuracy (percent correct) and reaction time (RT) for conflict adaptation (incongruent trials preceded by incongruent vs. congruent trials) and conflict detection (incongruent vs. congruent trials).
Results: Measures of conflict adaptation did not interact with diagnosis or age. There was a significant main effect of conflict adaptation across the overall sample in the expected direction for accuracy, but not RT. The well-replicated conflict detection effect also did emerge across tasks, with slower RT and lower accuracy for incongruent than for congruent trials. These effects were greater for the emotional than for nonemotional tasks. Finally, there were age differences in accuracy-based conflict detection specific to the emotional task, for which the size of the effect was larger for youth than for adults.
Conclusions: The current study of youth and adults did not replicate prior behavioral findings of failure to engage conflict adaptation in anxiety disorders. Therefore, more work is needed before widely adopting conflict adaptation paradigms as a standard neurocognitive marker for anxiety disorders.
Trial registration: ClinicalTrials.gov NCT00018057.