Background: Anxiety can interfere with attention and working memory, which can affect learning. However, statistical models designed to quantify learning in real time have only been applied to study how individuals with anxiety learn under conditions of threat. It is not yet known if an anxiety diagnosis, in a non-threatening environment, is associated with differential neural correlates of learning.
Methods: N=25 controls (age M=32.8, SD=8.4, 52% female) and 14 individuals with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD; age M=30.5, SD=12.2, 50% female) completed a shape- button association learning and reversal task during fMRI. Beta-weighted values from spherical ROIs (radius=2mm) in the basal ganglia and hippocampus were extracted for all learning blocks at p<0.05, AlphaSim corrected, and entered into a repeated measures ANOVA, to investigate the effect of a GAD diagnosis on learning.
Results: In the hippocampus, there was a significant interaction effect between group and condition (F(2, 36)=3.562, p=0.03). A post-hoc independent samples t-test revealed a significant difference between the controls (M=0.34, SD=0.90) and the GAD group (M=-0.72, SD=2.52) in the First Reversal block (t(37)=2.2, p=0.034). In the basal ganglia, there was a trend towards a significant interaction effect between group and learning condition (F(2, 36)=3.082, p=0.05). A post-hoc independent samples t-test revealed a significant difference between the controls (M=0.62, SD=1.47) and the GAD group (M=-0.61, SD=1.94) in the First Reversal block (t(37)=2.22, p=0.033).
Conclusions: Individuals with GAD showed less activation in the basal ganglia and the hippocampus only in the First Reversal block compared with controls. Given that the basal ganglia is associated with initial learning, and the hippocampus with transfer of knowledge from short to long term memory, our results suggest that individuals with GAD may require more time to accommodate or consolidate new learning. However, this difference is not present in the initial learning block or the second reversal, implying that GAD may only affect brain activation in early stages of learning accommodation and consolidation.
Live Zoom Session – April 21st
Marta Migó, BA, Tina Chou, PhD, Kristen Ellard, PhD, Amy T. Peters, PhD, Alik S. Widge, MD, PhD, Darin D. Dougherty, MD, MMSc, Thilo Deckersbach, PhD
Thilo Deckersbach, PhD