Anxiety and the neurobiology of temporally uncertain threat anticipation

Description: When extreme, anxiety—a state of distress and arousal prototypically evoked by uncertain danger—can be debilitating. Uncertain anticipation is a shared feature of situations that elicit signs and symptoms of anxiety across disorders, species, and assays. Despite the significance of anxiety for human health and wellbeing, the neurobiology of uncertain-threat anticipation remains unsettled. Leveraging a paradigm adapted from animal research and optimized for functional MRI signal decomposition, we examined the neural circuits engaged during the anticipation of temporally uncertain and certain threat in 99 men and women. Results revealed that the neural systems recruited by uncertain and certain threat anticipation are anatomically co-localized in fronto-cortical regions, extended amygdala, and periaqueductal gray. Comparison of the threat conditions demonstrated that this circuitry can be fractionated, with fronto-cortical regions showing relatively stronger engagement during the anticipation of uncertain threat, and the extended amygdala showing the reverse pattern. Although there is widespread agreement that the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis and dorsal amygdala—the two major subdivisions of the extended amygdala—play a critical role in orchestrating adaptive responses to potential danger, their precise contributions to human anxiety have remained contentious. Follow-up analyses demonstrated that these regions show statistically indistinguishable responses to temporally uncertain and certain threat anticipation. These observations provide a framework for conceptualizing anxiety and fear, for understanding the functional neuroanatomy of threat anticipation in humans, and for guiding the development of more effective intervention strategies for pathological anxiety.

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