Deficient prefrontal attentional control in late-life generalized anxiety disorder: An fMRI investigation

R. B. Price, D. A. Eldreth, J. Mohlman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

66 Scopus citations


Younger adults with anxiety disorders are known to show an attentional bias toward negative information. Little is known regarding the role of biased attention in anxious older adults, and even less is known about the neural substrates of any such bias. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to assess the mechanisms of attentional bias in late life by contrasting predictions of a top-down model emphasizing deficient prefrontal cortex (PFC) control and a bottom-up model emphasizing amygdalar hyperreactivity. In all, 16 older generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) patients (mean age=66 years) and 12 non-anxious controls (NACs; mean age=67 years) completed the emotional Stroop task to assess selective attention to negative words. Task-related fMRI data were concurrently acquired. Consistent with hypotheses, GAD participants were slower to identify the color of negative words relative to neutral, whereas NACs showed the opposite bias, responding more quickly to negative words. During negative words (in comparison with neutral), the NAC group showed PFC activations, coupled with deactivation of task-irrelevant emotional processing regions such as the amygdala and hippocampus. By contrast, GAD participants showed PFC decreases during negative words and no differences in amygdalar activity across word types. Across all participants, greater attentional bias toward negative words was correlated with decreased PFC recruitment. A significant positive correlation between attentional bias and amygdala activation was also present, but this relationship was mediated by PFC activity. These results are consistent with reduced prefrontal attentional control in late-life GAD. Strategies to enhance top-down attentional control may be particularly relevant in late-life GAD treatment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberA46
JournalTranslational psychiatry
StatePublished - 2011
Externally publishedYes


  • FMRI
  • aging
  • anxiety
  • attention
  • attentional bias
  • prefrontal cortex

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience
  • Biological Psychiatry


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