Unraveling the anxious mind: Anxiety, worry and frontal engagement in sustained attention versus off-task processing.
Forster S., Nunez-Elizalde A., Castle E., Bishop SJ.
Much remains unknown regarding the relationship between anxiety, worry, sustained attention and frontal function. Here we addressed this using a sustained attention task adapted for functional magnetic resonance imaging. Participants responded to presentation of simple stimuli, withholding responses to an infrequent ‘No Go’ stimulus. Dorsolateral prefrontal (DLPFC) activity to ‘Go’ trials, and dorsal anterior cingulate (dACC) activity to ‘No Go’ trials were associated with faster error-free performance; consistent with DLPFC and dACC facilitating proactive and reactive control, respectively. Trait anxiety was linked to reduced recruitment of these regions, slower error-free performance and decreased frontal-thalamo-striatal connectivity. This indicates an association between trait anxiety and impoverished frontal control of attention, even when external distractors are absent. In task blocks where commission errors were made, greater DLPFC-precuneus and DLPFC-posterior cingulate connectivity were associated with both trait anxiety and worry, indicative of increased off-task thought. Notably, unlike trait anxiety, worry was not linked to reduced frontal-striatal-thalamo-connectivity, impoverished frontal recruitment, or slowed responding during blocks without commission errors, contrary to accounts proposing a direct causal link between worry and impoverished attentional control. This leads us to propose a new model of the relationship between anxiety, worry and frontal engagement in attentional control versus off-task thought.