Brain Mediators of Cardiovascular Responses to Social Threat, Part II: Prefrontal-Subcortical Pathways and Relationship with Anxiety

Posted: 28 Oct 2016

See all articles by Tor Wager

Tor Wager

University of Colorado at Boulder

Vanessa van Ast

University of Amsterdam - Faculty of Social and Behavioral Sciences

Brent Hughes

Stanford University

Matthew Davidson

Independent

Martin Lindquist

Columbia University

Kevin N. Ochsner

Columbia University - Department of Psychology

Date Written: October 24, 2016

Abstract

Social evaluative threat (SET) is a potent stressor in humans that causes autonomic changes, endocrine responses, and multiple health problems. Neuroimaging has recently begun to elucidate the brain correlates of SET, but as yet little is known about the mediating cortical-brainstem pathways in humans. This paper replicates and extends findings in a companion paper (Wager et al., 2009) using an independent cohort of participants and different image acquisition parameters. Here, we focused specifically on relationships between the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), midbrain periaqueductal gray (PAG), and heart rate (HR). We applied multi-level path analysis to localize brain mediators of SET effects on HR and self-reported anxiety. HR responses were mediated by opposing signals in two distinct sub-regions of the MPFC — increases in rostral dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (rdACC) and de-activation in ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC). In addition, HR responses were mediated by PAG. Additional path analyses provided support for two cortical–subcortical pathways: one linking vmPFC, PAG, and HR, and another linking rdACC, thalamus, and HR. PAG responses were linked with HR changes both before and during SET, whereas cortical regions showed stronger connectivity with HR during threat. Self-reported anxiety showed a partially overlapping, but weaker, pattern of mediators, including the vmPFC, dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, and lateral frontal cortex, as well as substantial individual differences that were largely unexplained. Taken together, these data suggest pathways for the translation of social threats into both physiological and experiential responses, and provide targets for future research on the generation and regulation of emotion.

Suggested Citation

Wager, Tor and van Ast, Vanessa and Hughes, Brent and Davidson, Matthew and Lindquist, Martin and Ochsner, Kevin N., Brain Mediators of Cardiovascular Responses to Social Threat, Part II: Prefrontal-Subcortical Pathways and Relationship with Anxiety (October 24, 2016). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2858523

Tor Wager (Contact Author)

University of Colorado at Boulder ( email )

Boulder, CO

Vanessa Van Ast

University of Amsterdam - Faculty of Social and Behavioral Sciences ( email )

Kloveniersburgwal 48
Amsterdam, 1012 CX
Netherlands

Brent Hughes

Stanford University ( email )

Stanford, CA 94305
United States

Matthew Davidson

Independent ( email )

No Address Available

Martin Lindquist

Columbia University ( email )

3022 Broadway
New York, NY 10027
United States

Kevin N. Ochsner

Columbia University - Department of Psychology ( email )

406 Schermerhorn Hall
1190 Amsterdam Avenue, Mail Code 5501
New York, NY 10027
United States

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