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Open Access Research

Individual differences in cognitive reappraisal usage modulate the time course of brain activation during symptom provocation in specific phobia

Andrea Hermann12*, Verena Leutgeb3, Wilfried Scharmüller3, Dieter Vaitl2, Anne Schienle3 and Rudolf Stark12

Author affiliations

1 Department of Psychotherapy and Systems Neuroscience, Bender Institute of Neuroimaging, Justus Liebig University, Otto-Behaghel-Strasse 10H, Giessen 35394, Germany

2 Bender Institute of Neuroimaging, Justus Liebig University, Giessen, Germany

3 Department of Clinical Psychology, University of Graz, Graz, Austria

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Citation and License

Biology of Mood & Anxiety Disorders 2013, 3:16  doi:10.1186/2045-5380-3-16

Published: 12 August 2013

Abstract

Background

Extinction learning is proposed to be one key mechanism of action underlying exposure-based cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) in specific phobia. Beyond that, cognitive reappraisal, one important strategy to regulate negative emotions, is a crucial component of CBT interventions, but has been disregarded in previous studies investigating neural change processes in specific phobia. The aim of this study was to investigate the association of individual differences in habitual/dispositional cognitive reappraisal usage and the time course of brain activation during phobic stimulation in specific phobia.

Methods

Dental phobic patients and healthy control subjects participated in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study whilst being confronted with phobic, disgust, fear and neutral pictures. Individual differences in cognitive reappraisal usage were assessed via a self-report questionnaire and correlated with activation decreases over the course of time.

Results

Phobic individuals with higher dispositional cognitive reappraisal scores showed a more pronounced activation decline in the right dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC) which might be associated with a diminution of explicit cognitive emotion regulation over the course of time. Less decrease of activation in the right ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) and the lateral orbitofrontal cortex (lOFC) over time in subjects with higher cognitive reappraisal scores might be related to a stronger automatic regulation of emotions or even emotional relearning. Additionally, phobic subjects compared with healthy controls showed a stronger habituation of the left dmPFC over the course of symptom provocation.

Conclusions

The results of this study show for the first time that individual differences in cognitive reappraisal usage are associated with the time course of brain activation during symptom provocation in specific phobia. Additionally, the present study gives first indications for the importance of considering individual differences in cognitive reappraisal usage in the treatment of specific phobia.

Keywords:
Specific phobia; Emotion regulation; Cognitive reappraisal; vmPFC; Insula; Habituation; Extinction; fMRI; CBT