Brain systems underlying encounter expectancy bias in spider phobia.
Aue T., Hoeppli M-E., Piguet C., Hofstetter C., Rieger SW., Vuilleumier P.
Spider-phobic individuals are characterized by exaggerated expectancies to be faced with spiders (so-called encounter expectancy bias). Whereas phobic responses have been linked to brain systems mediating fear, little is known about how the recruitment of these systems relates to exaggerated expectancies of threat. We used fMRI to examine spider-phobic and control participants while they imagined visiting different locations in a forest after having received background information about the likelihood of encountering different animals (spiders, snakes, and birds) at these locations. Critically, imagined encounter expectancies modulated brain responses differently in phobics as compared with controls. Phobics displayed stronger negative modulation of activity in the lateral prefrontal cortex, precuneus, and visual cortex by encounter expectancies for spiders, relative to snakes or birds (within-participants analysis); these effects were not seen in controls. Between-participants correlation analyses within the phobic group further corroborated the hypothesis that these phobia-specific modulations may underlie irrationality in encounter expectancies (deviations of encounter expectancies from objective background information) in spider phobia; the greater the negative modulation a phobic participant displayed in the lateral prefrontal cortex, precuneus, and visual cortex, the stronger was her bias in encounter expectancies for spiders. Interestingly, irrationality in expectancies reflected in frontal areas relied on right rather than left hemispheric deactivations. Our data accord with the idea that expectancy biases in spider phobia may reflect deficiencies in cognitive control and contextual integration that are mediated by right frontal and parietal areas.