Social anxiety is associated with diminished automatic approach toward positive social cues that may limit the ability to connect with others. This diminished approach bias may be a modifiable treatment target. We evaluated the effects of an approach avoidance training procedure on positive emotions, social relationship outcomes, clinical symptoms, and neural indices of social approach and reward processing. Forty-five individuals with social anxiety disorder were randomized (parallel 1:1 randomization) to complete computerized Approach Positive training (n = 21) or Balanced training(n = 24). Sessions included a standardized social interaction task. Participants were blind to training group. Participants completed clinical outcome measures and functional magnetic resonance imaging at baseline and post intervention with an MRI-compatible AAT and the social incentive delay task (SID). Both groups displayed significant improvements of similar magnitude on the primary outcome of social connectedness (between group post-treatment d = -0.21) but not positive affect (d = -0.09), from before to after treatment, persisting through follow-up. Groups demonstrated significant improvements on additional outcomes including anxiety, depression, and anhedonia symptoms. Participants in Approach Positive AAT demonstrated increased activation in the thalamus and medial prefrontal cortex during social versus neutral- approach relative to Balanced AAT during the fMRI AAT. Participants in Balanced AAT showed increased activation in regions within an a priori-defined striatum region of interest mask during anticipation of social reward (vs. baseline) in the SID relative to Approach Positive AAT. At a neural processing level AAT may influence the valuation and motivations associated with positive social cues regulated by the mPFC and thalamus. NCT02136212, NIMH R00MH090243.
Keywords: Approach-avoidance training; Automatic action tendencies; Cognitive bias modification; Randomized controlled trial; Social anxiety disorder.
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