Brain mediators of cardiovascular responses to social threat, Part II: Prefrontal-subcortical pathways and relationship with anxiety

Tor D. Wager, Vanessa A. van Ast, Brent L. Hughes, Matthew L. Davidson, Martin A. Lindquist, Kevin N. Ochsner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

181 Scopus citations


Social evaluative threat (SET) is a potent stressor in humans that causes autonomic changes, endocrine responses, and multiple health problems. Neuroimaging has recently begun to elucidate the brain correlates of SET, but as yet little is known about the mediating cortical-brainstem pathways in humans. This paper replicates and extends findings in a companion paper (Wager et al., 2009) using an independent cohort of participants and different image acquisition parameters. Here, we focused specifically on relationships between the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), midbrain periaqueductal gray (PAG), and heart rate (HR). We applied multi-level path analysis to localize brain mediators of SET effects on HR and self-reported anxiety. HR responses were mediated by opposing signals in two distinct sub-regions of the MPFC-increases in rostral dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (rdACC) and de-activation in ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC). In addition, HR responses were mediated by PAG. Additional path analyses provided support for two cortical-subcortical pathways: one linking vmPFC, PAG, and HR, and another linking rdACC, thalamus, and HR. PAG responses were linked with HR changes both before and during SET, whereas cortical regions showed stronger connectivity with HR during threat. Self-reported anxiety showed a partially overlapping, but weaker, pattern of mediators, including the vmPFC, dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, and lateral frontal cortex, as well as substantial individual differences that were largely unexplained. Taken together, these data suggest pathways for the translation of social threats into both physiological and experiential responses, and provide targets for future research on the generation and regulation of emotion.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)836-851
Number of pages16
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2009
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neurology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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