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Effect of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy on Neural Correlates of Fear Conditioning in Panic Disorder

      Background

      Learning by conditioning is a key ability of animals and humans for acquiring novel behavior necessary for survival in a changing environment. Aberrant conditioning has been considered a crucial factor in the etiology and maintenance of panic disorder with agoraphobia (PD/A). Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective treatment for PD/A. However, the neural mechanisms underlying the effects of CBT on conditioning processes in PD/A are unknown.

      Methods

      In a randomized, controlled, multicenter clinical trial in medication-free patients with PD/A who were treated with 12 sessions of manualized CBT, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used during fear conditioning before and after CBT. Quality-controlled fMRI data from 42 patients and 42 healthy subjects were obtained.

      Results

      After CBT, patients compared to control subjects revealed reduced activation for the conditioned response (CS+ > CS–) in the left inferior frontal gyrus (IFG). This activation reduction was correlated with reduction in agoraphobic symptoms from t1 to t2. Patients compared to control subjects also demonstrated increased connectivity between the IFG and regions of the “fear network” (amygdalae, insulae, anterior cingulate cortex) across time.

      Conclusions

      This study demonstrates the link between cerebral correlates of cognitive (IFG) and emotional (“fear network”) processing during symptom improvement across time in PD/A. Further research along this line has promising potential to support the development and further optimization of targeted treatments.

      Key Words

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