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Ashley Smith, Ph.D., Winner of the 2017 NIMH Three-Minute Talks Competition

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>> ASHLEY SMITH: We all remember adolescence...when everything that occurred was extremely emotional and everyday things like speaking up in class and trying to make a new friend were incredibly stressful and anxiety-provoking.

It turns out that a little social anxiety is perfectly normal for most adolescents...however there are some adolescents in which the fear of negative evaluation leads to avoidance and sometimes withdrawal from everyday social interactions.

To prevent these issues, it's important that we understand how adolescents with varying levels of social anxiety process social interactions.

To do this we use neuroimaging to examine how adolescent brains respond to social information.

Using simulated classrooms, we convinced adolescents that they would be receiving evaluative information from other students and took images of their brain while they received both positive and negative feedback.

While receiving evaluations, we found significant relationships between age and social anxiety in regions broadly involved in learning and remembering social and emotional information.

Specifically, the superior temporal gyrus, hippocampus, and caudate.

In this graph, you can see that adolescents who have low levels of social anxiety show more engagement, or use, of these regions when they are older.

On the other hand, adolescents with higher anxiety show less activation with age.

Interestingly, these patterns are present when adolescents receive positive feedback from students who are always nice to them and when they receive unexpected negative feedback from students who are sometimes nice and sometimes mean.

At first glance these two events are opposites, one being extremely positive and the other being extremely negative.

But both of these types of feedback stand out, making them highly emotional experiences for most adolescents.

So assuming these events are similar in emotionality, then our data suggests that during highly emotional social experiences, typically developing adolescents engage emotional learning and memory regions to a greater extent as they get older, while highly anxious adolescents disengage with age.

Importantly, these patterns suggest that emotionality, rather than valence alone, may be a mechanism through which anxiety and development intersect.

Understanding the impact of age and symptom severity on social processing will help inform prevention and treatment programs for socially anxious adolescents.