Age Differences in the Neural Correlates of Anxiety Disorders: An fMRI Study of Response to Learned Threat.

Although both pediatric and adult patients with anxiety disorders exhibit similar neural responding to threats, age-related differences have been found in some functional MRI (fMRI) studies. To reconcile disparate findings, the authors compared brain function in youths and adults with and without anxiety disorders while rating fear and memory of ambiguous threats.Two hundred medication-free individuals ages 8-50 were assessed, including 93 participants with an anxiety disorder. Participants underwent discriminative threat conditioning and extinction in the clinic. Approximately 3 weeks later, they completed an fMRI paradigm involving extinction recall, in which they rated their levels of fear evoked by, and their explicit memory for, morph stimuli with varying degrees of similarity to the extinguished threat cues.Age moderated two sets of anxiety disorder findings. First, as age increased, healthy subjects compared with participants with anxiety disorders exhibited greater amygdala-ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) connectivity when processing threat-related cues. Second, age moderated diagnostic differences in activation in ways that varied with attention and brain regions. When rating fear, activation in the vmPFC differed between the anxiety and healthy groups at relatively older ages. In contrast, when rating memory for task stimuli, activation in the inferior temporal cortex differed between the anxiety and healthy groups at relatively younger ages.In contrast to previous studies that demonstrated age-related similarities in the biological correlates of anxiety disorders, this study identified age differences. These findings may reflect this study's focus on relatively late-maturing psychological processes, particularly the appraisal and explicit memory of ambiguous threat, and inform neurodevelopmental perspectives on anxiety.

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