Quantitative representations of an exaggerated anxiety response in the brain of female spider phobics—a parametric fMRI study

Anna Zilverstand, Bettina Sorger, Anita Kaemingk, Rainer Goebel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


We employed a novel parametric spider picture set in the context of a parametric fMRI anxiety provocation study, designed to tease apart brain regions involved in threat monitoring from regions representing an exaggerated anxiety response in spider phobics. For the stimulus set, we systematically manipulated perceived proximity of threat by varying a depicted spider's context, size, and posture. All stimuli were validated in a behavioral rating study (phobics n = 20; controls n = 20; all female). An independent group participated in a subsequent fMRI anxiety provocation study (phobics n = 7; controls n = 7; all female), in which we compared a whole-brain categorical to a whole-brain parametric analysis. Results demonstrated that the parametric analysis provided a richer characterization of the functional role of the involved brain networks. In three brain regions—the mid insula, the dorsal anterior cingulate, and the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex—activation was linearly modulated by perceived proximity specifically in the spider phobia group, indicating a quantitative representation of an exaggerated anxiety response. In other regions (e.g., the amygdala), activation was linearly modulated in both groups, suggesting a functional role in threat monitoring. Prefrontal regions, such as dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, were activated during anxiety provocation but did not show a stimulus-dependent linear modulation in either group. The results confirm that brain regions involved in anxiety processing hold a quantitative representation of a pathological anxiety response and more generally suggest that parametric fMRI designs may be a very powerful tool for clinical research in the future, particularly when developing novel brain-based interventions (e.g., neurofeedback training). Hum Brain Mapp 38:3025–3038, 2017.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3025-3038
Number of pages14
JournalHuman Brain Mapping
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2017

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.


  • amygdala
  • anxiety disorders
  • insula
  • magnetic resonance imaging
  • neurofeedback
  • phobic disorders
  • spider phobia
  • spiders
  • subjective anxiety
  • threat


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