Anxiety reduction through mere expectation of anxiolytic treatment effects (placebo anxiolysis) has enormous clinical importance. Recent behavioral and electrophysiological data suggest that placebo anxiolysis involves reduced vigilance and enhanced internalization of attention; however, the underlying neurobiological mechanisms are not yet clear. Given the fundamental function of intrinsic connectivity networks (ICNs) in basic cognitive processes, we investigated ICN activity patterns associated with externally and internally directed mental states under the influence of an anxiolytic placebo medication. Based on recent findings, we specifically analyzed the functional role of the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC) in coordinating placebo-dependent cue-related (phasic) and cue-unrelated (sustained) network activity. Under placebo, we observed a down-regulation of the entire salience network (SN), particularly in response to threatening cues. The rACC exhibited enhanced cue-unrelated functional connectivity (FC) with the SN, which correlated with reductions in tonic arousal and anxiety. Hence, apart from the frequently reported modulation of aversive cue responses, the rACC appears to be crucially involved in exerting a tonically dampening control over salience-responsive structures. In line with a more internally directed mental state, we also found enhanced FC within the default mode network (DMN), again predicting reductions in anxiety under placebo.
Keywords: anxiety; attention; fMRI; intrinsic connectivity networks; placebo effect.
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