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Anterior cingulate cortex and insula response during indirect and direct processing of emotional faces in generalized social anxiety disorder

Heide Klumpp1*, David Post1, Mike Angstadt2, Daniel A Fitzgerald1 and K Luan Phan123

Author affiliations

1 Mood and Anxiety Disorders Research Program, Department of Psychiatry (HK, DP, DAF, KLP), University of Illinois at Chicago, 1747 W. Roosevelt Rd, Chicago, IL, 60608, USA

2 Department of Psychiatry (MA, KLP), University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, USA

3 Neuropsychiatric Research Program (KLP), Mental Health Service, Jesse Brown VA Medical Center, Chicago, IL, USA

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Citation and License

Biology of Mood & Anxiety Disorders 2013, 3:7  doi:10.1186/2045-5380-3-7

Published: 2 April 2013



Generalized social anxiety disorder (gSAD) is associated with a heightened neural sensitivity to signals that convey threat, as evidenced by exaggerated amygdala and/or insula activation when processing face stimuli that express negative emotions. Less clear in the brain pathophysiology of gSAD are cortical top down control mechanisms that moderate reactivity in these subcortical emotion processing regions. This study evaluated amygdala, insula, and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) activity in gSAD with a novel “Emotional Faces Shifting Attention Task” (EFSAT), an adaptation of perceptual assessment tasks well-known to elicit amygdala response. In healthy volunteers, the task has been shown to engage the amygdala when attention is directed to emotional faces and the ACC when attention is directed to shapes, away from emotional faces.


During functional MRI, 29 participants with gSAD and 27 healthy controls viewed images comprising a trio of faces (angry, fear, or happy) alongside a trio of geometric shapes (circles, rectangles, or triangles) within the same field of view. Participants were instructed to match faces or match shapes, effectively directing attention towards or away from emotional information, respectively.


Participants with gSAD exhibited greater insula, but not amygdala, activation compared to controls when attending to emotional faces. In contrast, when attention was directed away from faces, controls exhibited ACC recruitment, which was not evident in gSAD. Across participants, greater ACC activation was associated with less insula activation.


Evidence that individuals with gSAD exhibited exaggerated insula reactivity when attending to emotional faces in EFSAT is consistent with other studies suggesting that the neural basis of gSAD may involve insula hyper-reactivity. Furthermore, greater ACC response in controls than gSAD when sustained goal-directed attention is required to shift attention away from social signals, together with a negative relationship between ACC and bilateral insula activity, indicate the ACC may have served a regulatory role when the focus of attention was directed to shapes amidst emotional faces.

Social anxiety; fMRI; Emotional faces; Threat processing; Brain imaging