Neural responding during uncertain threat anticipation in pediatric anxiety

Kalina J. Michalska, Brenda Benson, Elizabeth J. Ivie, Jessica F. Sachs, Simone P. Haller, Rany Abend, Daniel R. McFarlin, Jennifer Urbano Blackford, Daniel S. Pine

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Excessive fear responses to uncertain threat are a key feature of anxiety disorders (ADs), though most mechanistic work considers adults. As ADs onset in childhood and confer risk for later psychopathology, we sought to identify conditions of uncertain threat that distinguish 8–17-year-old youth with AD (n = 19) from those without AD (n = 33), and assess test-retest reliability of such responses in a companion sample of healthy adults across three sites (n = 19). In an adapted uncertainty of threat paradigm, visual cues parametrically signaled threat of aversive stimuli (fear faces) in 25 % increments (0 %, 25 %, 50 %, 100 %), while participants underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). We compared neural response elicited by cues signaling different degrees of probability regarding the subsequent delivery of fear faces. Overall, youth displayed greater engagement of bilateral inferior parietal cortex, fusiform gyrus, and lingual gyrus during uncertain threat anticipation in general. Relative to healthy youth, AD youth exhibited greater activation in ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (vlPFC)/BA47 during uncertain threat anticipation in general. Further, AD differed from healthy youth in scaling of ventral striatum/sgACC activation with threat probability and attenuated flexibility of responding during parametric uncertain threat. Complementing these results, significant, albeit modest, cross-site test-retest reliability in these regions was observed in an independent sample of healthy adults. While preliminary due to a small sample size, these findings suggest that during uncertainty of threat, AD youth engage vlPFC regions known to be involved in fear regulation, response inhibition, and cognitive control. Findings highlight the potential of isolating neural correlates of threat anticipation to guide treatment development and translational work in youth.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)159-170
Number of pages12
JournalInternational Journal of Psychophysiology
StatePublished - Jan 2023
Externally publishedYes


  • Fmri
  • Pediatric anxiety
  • Reliability
  • Threat anticipation
  • Threat uncertainty

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Physiology (medical)


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