Resting-state connectivity and neural response to emotional images in patients with severe health anxiety: An fMRI study

J Affect Disord. 2023 Mar 1;324:370-378. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2022.12.138. Epub 2022 Dec 30.


Background: Severe health anxiety is a disorder characterized by a persistent preoccupation with one's health. In behavioral studies, biases in the processing of health-related stimuli (e.g., pictures, words) are consistently associated with health anxiety symptoms. The neural correlates of the observed behavioral abnormalities remain however poorly understood.

Methods: In this functional magnetic resonance imaging study, 22 treatment-seeking patients with severe health anxiety and 22 control participants performed a resting-state and a picture matching task. Immediately after the resting-state, participants completed a questionnaire quantifying their thoughts and feelings during rest along several dimensions. The picture task included images of health-related and neutral scenes and of disgusted and neutral faces.

Results: Compared to controls, patients with health anxiety showed increased functional connectivity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex within the left fronto-parietal resting-state network, which correlated positively with the self-reported thought dimensions of Self, Health Concern, and Thought Suppression. In the picture matching task, no significant group differences were found in the hypothesised regions (amygdala and insula) or at a whole-brain level in response to either health-related versus neural scenes or disgust versus neutral faces contrasts.

Limitations: A relatively small sample size and that no information about patients declining to participate was obtained.

Conclusions: Our findings suggest that behavioral biases in health anxiety may be related to aberrant left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex functional connectivity at rest. In contrast, the health anxiety patients did not show significant hyperactivations of amygdala and insula during processing of emotional stimuli, contrasting findings in other anxiety disorders.

Keywords: Hypochondriasis; Resting state; Severe health anxiety; fMRI.

MeSH terms

  • Anxiety / diagnostic imaging
  • Anxiety Disorders
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Emotions* / physiology
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging* / methods