Functional Neuroimaging of Anxiety: A Meta-Analysis of Emotional Processing in PTSD, Social Anxiety Disorder, and Specific Phobia

Am J Psychiatry (2007); 164:1476–1488

13 Pages Posted: 25 Oct 2016

See all articles by Amit Etkin

Amit Etkin

Stanford University

Tor Wager

University of Colorado at Boulder

Date Written: October 2007


Objective: The study of human anxiety disorders has benefited greatly from functional neuroimaging approaches. Individual studies, however, vary greatly in their findings. The authors searched for common and disorder-specific functional neurobiological deficits in several anxiety disorders. The authors also compared these deficits to the neural systems engaged during anticipatory anxiety in healthy subjects.

Method: Functional magnetic resonance imaging and positron emission tomography studies of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social anxiety disorder, specific phobia, and fear conditioning in healthy individuals were compared by quantitative meta-analysis. Included studies compared negative emotional processing to baseline, neutral, or positive emotion conditions.

Results: Patients with any of the three disorders consistently showed greater activity than matched comparison subjects in the amygdala and insula, structures linked to negative emotional responses. A similar pattern was observed during fear conditioning in healthy subjects. Hyperactivation in the amygdala and insula were, of interest, more frequently observed in social anxiety disorder and specific phobia than in PTSD. By contrast, only patients with PTSD showed hypoactivation in the dorsal and rostral anterior cingulate cortices and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex—structures linked to the experience and regulation of emotion.

Conclusions: This meta-analysis allowed us to synthesize often disparate findings from individual studies and thereby provide neuroimaging evidence for common brain mechanisms in anxiety disorders and normal fear. Effects unique to PTSD furthermore suggested a mechanism for the emotional dysregulation symptoms in PTSD that extend beyond an exaggerated fear response. Therefore, these findings help refine our understanding of anxiety disorders and their interrelationships.

Suggested Citation

Etkin, Amit and Wager, Tor, Functional Neuroimaging of Anxiety: A Meta-Analysis of Emotional Processing in PTSD, Social Anxiety Disorder, and Specific Phobia (October 2007). Am J Psychiatry (2007); 164:1476–1488. Available at SSRN:

Amit Etkin

Stanford University ( email )

Stanford, CA 94305
United States

Tor Wager (Contact Author)

University of Colorado at Boulder ( email )

Boulder, CO

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