We employed a novel parametric spider picture set in the context of a parametric fMRI anxiety provocation study, designed to tease apart brain regions involved in threat monitoring from regions representing an exaggerated anxiety response in spider phobics. For the stimulus set, we systematically manipulated perceived proximity of threat by varying a depicted spider's context, size, and posture. All stimuli were validated in a behavioral rating study (phobics n = 20; controls n = 20; all female). An independent group participated in a subsequent fMRI anxiety provocation study (phobics n = 7; controls n = 7; all female), in which we compared a whole-brain categorical to a whole-brain parametric analysis. Results demonstrated that the parametric analysis provided a richer characterization of the functional role of the involved brain networks. In three brain regions—the mid insula, the dorsal anterior cingulate, and the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex—activation was linearly modulated by perceived proximity specifically in the spider phobia group, indicating a quantitative representation of an exaggerated anxiety response. In other regions (e.g., the amygdala), activation was linearly modulated in both groups, suggesting a functional role in threat monitoring. Prefrontal regions, such as dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, were activated during anxiety provocation but did not show a stimulus-dependent linear modulation in either group. The results confirm that brain regions involved in anxiety processing hold a quantitative representation of a pathological anxiety response and more generally suggest that parametric fMRI designs may be a very powerful tool for clinical research in the future, particularly when developing novel brain-based interventions (e.g., neurofeedback training). Hum Brain Mapp 38:3025–3038, 2017.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
We would like to thank Ed Nieuwenhuys for providing the high-quality photographs of European Spiders; Valentin Kemper for his support with optimizing fMRI data acquisition; Armin Heinecke, Judith Eck, and Jan Zimmermann for their very helpful suggestions regarding the analyses; and Anna Konova for help with editing the manuscript.
- anxiety disorders
- magnetic resonance imaging
- phobic disorders
- spider phobia
- subjective anxiety