A Novel Cognitive Training Program Targets Stimulus-Driven Attention to Alter Symptoms, Behavior, and Neural Circuitry in Pediatric Anxiety Disorders: Pilot Clinical Trial

Andrew T. Drysdale, Michael J. Myers, Jennifer C. Harper, Meg Guard, Megan Manhart, Qiongru Yu, Michael T. Perino, Joan L. Luby, Deanna M. Barch, Daniel S. Pine, Chad M. Sylvester

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Objective: Pediatric anxiety disorders are associated with increased stimulus-driven attention (SDA), the involuntary capture of attention by salient stimuli. Increased SDA is linked to increased activity in the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (rVLPFC), especially in the portion corresponding to the ventral attention network (VAN). In this study, we present a small clinical trial using a novel attention training program designed to treat pediatric anxiety by decreasing SDA and activity in the rVLPFC. Methods: Children ages 8–12 with anxiety disorders (n = 18) participated in eight sessions of attention training over a 4-week period. At baseline and after completing training, participants completed clinical anxiety measures and a battery of cognitive tasks designed to measure three different aspects of attention: SDA, goal-oriented attention, and threat bias. A subset of participants (n = 12) underwent baseline and post-training neuroimaging while engaged in an SDA task. Brain analyses focused on activity within the rVLPFC. Results: Parent (p < 0.001)-, child (p < 0.002)-, and clinician-rated (p < 0.02) anxiety improved significantly over the course of training. Training significantly altered SDA [F(1,92) = 8.88, corrected p-value (pcor) < 0.012, uncorrected p-value (puncor) < 0.004]. Anxiety improvement correlated with improvements in goal-directed attention [r(10) = 0.60, pcor < 0.12 puncor < 0.04]. Within an area of the rVLPFC corresponding to the cingulo-opercular network (CON), there was a main effect of training [F(1,20) = 6.75, pcor < 0.16, puncor < 0.02], with decreasing signal across training. There was a significant interaction between training and anxiety on this region’s activity [F(1,20) = 9.48, pcor < 0.048, puncor < 0.006]. Post hoc testing revealed that post-training activity within this CON area correlated with residual anxiety [r(10) = 0.68, p < 0.02]. Conclusions: SDA and rVLPFC neural activity may be novel therapeutic targets in pediatric anxiety. After undergoing a training paradigm aimed at modifying this aspect of attention and its underlying neural circuitry, patients showed lower anxiety, changes in SDA and goal-oriented attention, and decreased activity in the CON portion of the rVLPFC.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)306-315
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology
Volume33
Issue number8
DOIs
StatePublished - Oct 1 2023

Keywords

  • anxiety
  • cognitive training
  • fMRI
  • stimulus-driven attention

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