Anxiety disorder patients were repeatedly found to overestimate the association between disorder-relevant stimuli and aversive outcomes despite random contingencies. Such an illusory correlation (IC) might play an important role in the return of fear after extinction learning; yet, little is known about how this cognitive bias emerges in the brain. In a functional magnetic resonance imaging study, 18 female patients with spider phobia and 18 healthy controls were exposed to pictures of spiders, mushrooms and puppies followed randomly by either a painful electrical shock or nothing. In advance, both patients and healthy controls expected more shocks after spider pictures. Importantly, only patients with spider phobia continued to overestimate this association after the experiment. The strength of this IC was predicted by increased outcome aversiveness ratings and primary sensory motor cortex activity in response to the shock after spider pictures. Moreover, increased activation of the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) to spider pictures predicted the IC. These results support the theory that phobia-relevant stimuli amplify unpleasantness and sensory motor representations of aversive stimuli, which in turn may promote their overestimation. Hyper-activity in dlPFC possibly reflects a pre-occupation of executive resources with phobia-relevant stimuli, thus complicating the accurate monitoring of objective contingencies and the unlearning of fear.

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Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience
Department of Psychology

Wiemer, J, Schulz, S.M.S., Reicherts, P, Glotzbach-Schoon, E., Andreatta, M., & Pauli, P. (2014). Brain activity with illusory correlations in animal phobia. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. doi:10.1093/scan/nsu142