Cavanagh, J. F. & Shackman, A. J. (in press). Frontal midline theta reflects anxiety and cognitive control: Meta-analytic evidence. Special issue of the Journal of Physiology, Paris focused on “Neural circuits for the adaptive control of behaviour,”edited by Jerome Sallet, Sebastien Bouret, Mark Laubach, and Dan Shulz.
Evidence from imaging and anatomical studies suggests that the midcingulate cortex (MCC) is a dynamic hub lying at the interface of affect and cognition. In particular, this neural system appears to integrate information about conflict and punishment in order to optimize behavior in the face of action-outcome uncertainty. In a series of meta-analyses, we show how recent human electrophysiological research provides compelling evidence that frontal-midline theta signals reflecting MCC activity are moderated by anxiety and predict adaptive behavioral adjustments. These findings underscore the importance of frontal theta activity to a broad spectrum of control operations. We argue that frontal-midline theta provides a neurophysiologically plausible mechanism for optimally adjusting behavior to uncertainty, a hallmark of situations that elicit anxiety and demand cognitive control. These observations compel a new perspective on the mechanisms guiding motivated learning and behavior and provide a framework for understanding the role of the MCC in temperament and psychopathology.