It is common wisdom that individuals vary in their baseline levels of anxiety. We all have a friend or colleague we know to be more “tightly wound” than others, or, perhaps, we are the ones marveling at others' ability to “just go with the flow.” Although such observations about individual differences within nonclinical populations are commonplace, the neural mechanisms underlying normal variation in trait anxiety have not been established. Using multimodal brain imaging in humans, this study takes initial steps in linking intrinsic measures of neuromodulator release and functional connectivity within regions implicated in anxiety disorders. Our findings suggest that in healthy adults, higher levels of trait anxiety may arise, at least in part, from reduced dopamine neurotransmission.Abstract
Trait anxiety has been associated with altered activity within corticolimbic pathways connecting the amygdala and rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC), which receive rich dopaminergic input. Though the popular culture uses the term “chemical imbalance” to describe the pathophysiology of psychiatric conditions such as anxiety disorders, we know little about how individual differences in human dopamine neurochemistry are related to variation in anxiety and activity within corticolimbic circuits. We addressed this issue by examining interindividual variability in dopamine release at rest using [11C]raclopride positron emission tomography (PET), functional connectivity between amygdala and rACC using resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and trait anxiety measures in healthy adult male and female humans. To measure endogenous dopamine release, we collected two [11C]raclopride PET scans per participant. We contrasted baseline [11C]raclopride D2/3 receptor binding and D2/3 receptor binding following oral methylphenidate administration. Methylphenidate blocks the dopamine transporter, which increases extracellular dopamine and leads to reduced [11C]raclopride D2/3 receptor binding via competitive displacement. We found that individuals with higher dopamine release in the amygdala and rACC self-reported lower trait anxiety. Lower trait anxiety was also associated with reduced rACC–amygdala functional connectivity at baseline. Further, functional connectivity showed a modest negative relationship with dopamine release such that reduced rACC–amygdala functional connectivity was accompanied by higher levels of dopamine release in these regions. Together, these findings contribute to hypodopaminergic models of anxiety and support the utility of combining fMRI and PET measures of neurochemical function to advance our understanding of basic affective processes in humans.