Background: Pediatric anxiety disorders involve greater capture of attention by threatening stimuli. However, it is not known if disturbances extend to nonthreatening stimuli, as part of a pervasive disturbance in attention-related brain systems. We hypothesized that pediatric anxiety involves greater capture of attention by salient, nonemotional stimuli, coupled with greater activity in the portion of the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) specific to the ventral attention network (VAN). Methods: A sample of children (n = 129, 75 girls, mean 10.6 years of age), approximately half of whom met criteria for a current anxiety disorder, completed a task measuring involuntary capture of attention by nonemotional (square boxes) and emotional (angry and neutral faces) stimuli. A subset (n = 61) completed a task variant during functional magnetic resonance imaging. A priori analyses examined activity in functional brain areas within the right IFG, supplemented by a whole-brain, exploratory analysis. Results: Higher clinician-rated anxiety was associated with greater capture of attention by nonemotional, salient stimuli (F1,125 = 4.94, p = .028) and greater activity in the portion of the IFG specific to the VAN (F1,57 = 10.311, p = .002). Whole-brain analyses confirmed that the effect of anxiety during capture of attention was most pronounced in the VAN portion of the IFG, along with additional areas of the VAN and the default mode network. Conclusions: The pathophysiology of pediatric anxiety appears to involve greater capture of attention to salient stimuli, as well as greater activity in attention-related brain networks. These results provide novel behavioral and brain-based targets for treatment of pediatric anxiety disorders.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)726-734
Number of pages9
JournalBiological Psychiatry
Issue number7
StatePublished - Apr 1 2021


  • Attention
  • Inferior frontal gyrus
  • Network neuroscience
  • Pediatric anxiety
  • Ventral attention
  • fMRI


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