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Anxious and Healthy Adolescents Respond Differently to an Anxiety-provoking Situation

Science Update

Brain scans show heightened activity among anxious adolescents exposed to an anxiety-provoking situation when compared with normal controls, according to an NIMH study published in the November 2008 issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry.

In the new study by Amanda Guyer, PhD., of NIMH and colleagues at Georgia State University, Catholic University, NIMH, and the University of Maryland, 14 adolescents with significant anxiety about social situations and 14 healthy adolescents were told that they were going to participate in Internet chat rooms. Each participant would chat with a peer whom the participant wanted to chat with and who wanted to chat with the participant.

To select those they wanted to chat with, participants looked at photographs of peers and sorted them into categories of less desirable or more desirable. Then the participants were photographed. They were told that the peers would receive their photographs and would find out how the participants rated their desirability. The peers would similarly rate how interested they were in chatting with the participants.

Two weeks later, the participants underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging scans of their brain activity while looking at pictures of the peers they had rated. Participants were asked to describe how they thought the peers rated them in return.

When anxious adolescents were anticipating evaluation from peers whom they had rated as less desirable—an anxiety-provoking situation—their scans showed increased activation of the amygdala, a fear processing, almond-shaped hub deep in the brain. This increase was much greater than that noted in the scans of healthy adolescents anticipating evaluation from peers whom they had rated as less desirable.

The scans also revealed a perturbed engagement of the amygdala and ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain thought to regulate emotion, in the anxious adolescents when compared with the healthy participants. Disturbances in the association between the amygdala and the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, which is located behind the eyes and the forehead, are thought to influence anxiety.


Guyer AE, Lau JYF, McClure-Tone EB, Parrish J, Shiffrin ND, Reynolds RC, Chen G,Blair RJR, Leibenluft E, Fox NA, Ernst M, Pine DS, Nelson EE. Amygdala and Ventrolateral Prefrontal Cortex Function during Anticipated Peer Evaluation in Pediatric Social Anxiety. Archives of General Psychiatry. 2008; 65(11):1303-1312.