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J Neurosci. 2016 Mar 16;36(11):3322-35. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4250-15.2016.

Anxiety Evokes Hypofrontality and Disrupts Rule-Relevant Encoding by Dorsomedial Prefrontal Cortex Neurons.

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Departments of Neuroscience and Psychiatry, Center for Neuroscience, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15260.
Departments of Neuroscience and Psychiatry, Center for Neuroscience, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15260


Anxiety is a debilitating symptom of most psychiatric disorders, including major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, and addiction. A detrimental aspect of anxiety is disruption of prefrontal cortex (PFC)-mediated executive functions, such as flexible decision making. Here we sought to understand how anxiety modulates PFC neuronal encoding of flexible shifting between behavioral strategies. We used a clinically substantiated anxiogenic treatment to induce sustained anxiety in rats and recorded from dorsomedial PFC (dmPFC) and orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) neurons while they were freely moving in a home cage and while they performed a PFC-dependent task that required flexible switches between rules in two distinct perceptual dimensions. Anxiety elicited a sustained background "hypofrontality" in dmPFC and OFC by reducing the firing rate of spontaneously active neuronal subpopulations. During task performance, the impact of anxiety was subtle, but, consistent with human data, behavior was selectively impaired when previously correct conditions were presented as conflicting choices. This impairment was associated with reduced recruitment of dmPFC neurons that selectively represented task rules at the time of action. OFC rule representation was not affected by anxiety. These data indicate that a neural substrate of the decision-making deficits in anxiety is diminished dmPFC neuronal encoding of task rules during conflict-related actions. Given the translational relevance of the model used here, the data provide a neuronal encoding mechanism for how anxiety biases decision making when the choice involves overcoming a conflict. They also demonstrate that PFC encoding of actions, as opposed to cues or outcome, is especially vulnerable to anxiety.


A debilitating aspect of anxiety is its impact on decision making and flexible control of behavior. These cognitive constructs depend on proper functioning of the prefrontal cortex (PFC). Understanding how anxiety affects PFC encoding of cognitive events is of great clinical and evolutionary significance. Using a clinically valid experimental model, we find that, under anxiety, decision making may be skewed by salient and conflicting environmental stimuli at the expense of flexible top-down guided choices. We also find that anxiety suppresses spontaneous activity of PFC neurons, and weakens encoding of task rules by dorsomedial PFC neurons. These data provide a neuronal encoding scheme for how anxiety disengages PFC during decision making.


addiction; decision making; dopamine; schizophrenia; stress

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