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Visual avoidance in phobia: particularities in neural activity, autonomic responding, and cognitive risk evaluations

Published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2013, vol. 7, p. 194
Abstract We investigated the neural mechanisms and the autonomic and cognitive responses associated with visual avoidance behavior in spider phobia. Spider phobic and control participants imagined visiting different forest locations with the possibility of encountering spiders, snakes, or birds (neutral reference category). In each experimental trial, participants saw a picture of a forest location followed by a picture of a spider, snake, or bird, and then rated their personal risk of encountering these animals in this context, as well as their fear. The greater the visual avoidance of spiders that a phobic participant demonstrated (as measured by eye tracking), the higher were her autonomic arousal and neural activity in the amygdala, orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), and precuneus at picture onset. Visual avoidance of spiders in phobics also went hand in hand with subsequently reduced cognitive risk of encounters. Control participants, in contrast, displayed a positive relationship between gaze duration toward spiders, on the one hand, and autonomic responding, as well as OFC, ACC, and precuneus activity, on the other hand. In addition, they showed reduced encounter risk estimates when they looked longer at the animal pictures. Our data are consistent with the idea that one reason for phobics to avoid phobic information may be grounded in heightened activity in the fear circuit, which signals potential threat. Because of the absence of alternative efficient regulation strategies, visual avoidance may then function to down-regulate cognitive risk evaluations for threatening information about the phobic stimuli. Control participants, in contrast, may be characterized by a different coping style, whereby paying visual attention to potentially threatening information may help them to actively down-regulate cognitive evaluations of risk.
PMID: 23754994
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Article (Published version) (1.8 MB) - public document Free access
Research groups Affective sciences
Mécanismes cérébraux du comportement et des fonctions cognitives (701)
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AUE SEIL, Tatjana et al. Visual avoidance in phobia: particularities in neural activity, autonomic responding, and cognitive risk evaluations. In: Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2013, vol. 7, p. 194. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00194 https://archive-ouverte.unige.ch/unige:34024

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Deposited on : 2014-02-03

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