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Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences


Threat learning elicits robust changes across multiple affective domains, including changes in autonomic indices and subjective reports of fear and anxiety. It has been argued that the underlying causes of such changes may be dissociable at a neural level, but there is currently limited evidence to support this notion. To address this, we examined the neural mediators of trial-by-trial skin conductance responses (SCR), and subjective reports of anxious arousal and valence in participants (n = 27; 17 females) performing a threat reversal task during ultra-high field functional magnetic resonance imaging. This allowed us to identify brain mediators during initial threat learning and subsequent threat reversal. Significant neural mediators of anxious arousal during threat learning included the dorsal anterior cingulate, anterior insula cortex (AIC), and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), subcortical regions including the amygdala, ventral striatum, caudate and putamen, and brain-stem regions including the pons and midbrain. By comparison, autonomic changes (SCR) were mediated by a subset of regions embedded within this broader circuitry that included the caudate, putamen and thalamus, and two distinct clusters within the vmPFC. The neural mediators of subjective negative valence showed prominent effects in posterior cortical regions and, with the exception of the AIC, did not overlap with threat learning task effects. During threat reversal, positive mediators of both subjective anxious arousal and valence mapped to the default mode network; this included the vmPFC, posterior cingulate, temporoparietal junction, and angular gyrus. Decreased SCR during threat reversal was positively mediated by regions including the mid cingulate, AIC, two sub-regions of vmPFC, the thalamus, and the hippocampus. Our findings add novel evidence to support distinct underlying neural processes facilitating autonomic and subjective responding during threat learning and threat reversal. The results suggest that the brain systems engaged in threat learning mostly capture the subjective (anxious arousal) nature of the learning process, and that appropriate responding during threat reversal is facilitated by participants engaging self- and valence-based processes. Autonomic changes (SCR) appear to involve distinct facilitatory and regulatory contributions of vmPFC sub-regions.



Original Citation

Savage, H. S., Davey, C. G., Wager, T. D., Garfinkel, S. N., Moffat, B. A., Glarin, R. K., & Harrison, B. J. (2021). Neural mediators of subjective and autonomic responding during threat learning and regulation. NeuroImage, 245, 118643.