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J Neurosci. 2017 Sep 20;37(38):9160-9171. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0717-17.2017. Epub 2017 Aug 21.

Effect of Threat on Right dlPFC Activity during Behavioral Pattern Separation.

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Section on Neurobiology of Fear and Anxiety, National Institute of Mental Health, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland 20892
Section on Neurobiology of Fear and Anxiety, National Institute of Mental Health, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland 20892.


It has long been established that individuals with anxiety disorders tend to overgeneralize attributes of fearful stimuli to nonfearful stimuli, but there is little mechanistic understanding of the neural system that supports overgeneralization. To address this gap in our knowledge, this study examined effect of experimentally induced anxiety in humans on generalization using the behavioral pattern separation (BPS) paradigm. Healthy subjects of both sexes encoded and retrieved novel objects during periods of safety and threat of unpredictable shocks while we recorded brain activity with fMRI. During retrieval, subjects were instructed to differentiate among new, old, and altered images. We hypothesized that the hippocampus and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) would play a key role in the effect of anxiety on BPS. The dlPFC, but not the hippocampus, showed increased activity for altered images compared with old images when retrieval occurred during periods of threat compared with safety. In addition, accuracy for altered items retrieved during threat was correlated with dlPFC activity. Together, these results suggest that overgeneralization in anxiety patients may be mediated by an inability to recruit the dlPFC, which mediates the cognitive control needed to overcome anxiety and differentiate between old and altered items during periods of threat.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder patients generalize fear to nonfearful fear stimuli, making it difficult to regulate anxiety. Understanding how anxiety affects generalization is key to understanding the overgeneralization experienced by these patients. We examined this relationship in healthy subjects by studying how threat of shock affects neural responses to previously encountered stimuli. Although previous studies point to hippocampal involvement, we found that threat affected activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC), rather than the hippocampus, when subjects encountered slightly altered versions of the previously encountered items. Importantly, this dlPFC activity predicted performance for these items. Together, these results suggest that the dlPFC is important for discrimination during elevated anxiety and that overgeneralization may reflect a deficit in dlPFC-mediated cognitive control.



anxiety; dlPFC; fMRI; pattern separation; threat of shock

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