Shackman, A. J., Kaplan, C. M., Stockbridge, M. D., Tillman, R. M., Tromp, D. P. M., Fox, A. S., & Gamer, M. (2016). The neurobiology of dispositional negativity and attentional biases to threat: Implications for understanding anxiety disorders in adults and youth. Special issue of Journal of Experimental Psychopathology focused on “Risk and resilience in anxiety: Exploring the roles of attentional bias and attentional control in development” (J. A. Hadwin, L. Visu-Petra, C. MacLeod, N. Derakshan & P. Muris, Editors).
When extreme, anxiety can become debilitating. Anxiety disorders, which often first emerge early in development, are common and challenging to treat, yet the neurocognitive mechanisms that confer increased risk have only recently begun to come into focus. Here we review recent work highlighting the importance of neural circuits centered on the amygdala. We begin by describing dispositional negativity, a core dimension of childhood temperament and adult personality and an important risk factor for the development of anxiety disorders and other kinds of stress-sensitive psychopathology. Converging lines of epidemiological, neurophysiological, and mechanistic evidence indicate that the amygdala supports stable individual differences in dispositional negativity across the lifespan and contributes to the etiology of anxiety disorders in adults and youth. Hyper-vigilance and attentional biases to threat are prominent features of the anxious phenotype and there is growing evidence that they contribute to the development of psychopathology. Anatomical studies show that the amygdala is a hub, poised to govern attention to threat via projections to sensory cortex and ascending neuromodulatory systems. Imaging and lesion studies demonstrate that the amygdala plays a key role in selecting and prioritizing the processing of threat-related cues. Collectively, these observations provide a neurobiologically-grounded framework for understanding the development and maintenance of anxiety disorders in adults and youth and set the stage for developing improved intervention strategies.
Key Words: affective neuroscience, amygdala, anxiety disorders, attentional biases to threat, behavioral inhibition, developmental psychopathology, fear and anxiety, fMRI, individual differences, neuroimaging, personality and temperament