Neural circuitry governing anxious individuals’ mis-allocation of working memory to threat

Dispositional anxiety is a trait-like phenotype that confers increased risk for a range of debilitating neuropsychiatric disorders. Like many patients with anxiety disorders, individuals with elevated levels of dispositional anxiety are prone to intrusive and distressing thoughts in the absence of immediate threat. Recent electrophysiological research suggests that these symptoms are rooted in the mis-allocation of working memory (WM) resources to threat-related information. Here, functional MRI was used to identify the network of brain regions that support WM for faces and to quantify the allocation of neural resources to threat-related distracters in 81 young adults. Results revealed widespread evidence of mis-allocation. This was evident in both face-selective regions of the fusiform cortex and domain-general regions of the prefrontal and parietal cortices. This bias was exaggerated among individuals with a more anxious disposition. Mediation analyses provided compelling evidence that anxious individuals’ tendency to mis-allocate WM resources to threat-related distracters is a consequence of heightened amygdala reactivity. Collectively, these results provide a neurocognitive framework for understanding the pathways linking anxious phenotypes to the development of internalizing psychopathology and set the stage for developing improved intervention strategies.