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Anticipating evaluation from unpredictable peers is associated with differential brain response in socially anxious adolescents

Tuesday, September 23, 2014 — Poster Session III

12:00 p.m. – 2:00 p.m.

FAES Academic Center



* FARE Award Winner


  • L.H. Russell
  • E.E. Nelson
  • D.S. Pine
  • J.M. Jarcho


Social anxiety disorder (SAD) is a psychiatric disorder that typically begins during adolescence. Isolating neural circuits that promote social anxiety in adolescents may inform the design of brain-based treatment for SAD. Progress towards this goal has been hindered by methodological constraints, making it difficult to generate controlled, but realistic peer evaluation during fMRI. To address this challenge, we developed the Virtual School paradigm, in which participants play with “virtual avatar” peers whose behavior is under experimental control. SAD and non-anxious adolescents underwent fMRI while completing the Virtual School paradigm. Participants were the “new kid” in a virtual school where they interacted with peers known for being ‘nice,’ ‘mean,’ or ‘unpredictable.’ Each trial began when participants were explicitly cued that an evaluative comment from a predictably nice, predictably mean, or unpredictable peer was pending. Participants then received the evaluation and were given the opportunity to respond. Preliminary results show that anticipating social evaluation from unpredictable peers engages a network of affective brain regions (striatum, dorsal anterior cingulate, insula) to a greater extent in SAD vs control subjects. This suggests that dysregulated brain function while anticipating unpredictable (but not predictably positive or negative) social feedback may contribute to the expression of SAD.

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