Harvard Mental Health Letter

In brief: MRI scans reveal altered brain response to criticism in patients with social phobia

In brief

MRI scans reveal altered brain response to criticism in patients with social phobia

Generalized social phobia is the most common type of anxiety disorder. Patients with this disorder avoid social situations and are at higher risk for depression, alcohol abuse, and drug abuse. Many imaging studies have suggested that the disorder may involve abnormal activation of certain parts of the brain in response to other people's facial expressions.

A study published in October 2008 extended these findings by examining the brain's response to criticisms. The study enrolled 17 patients with generalized social phobia and 17 healthy controls.

When patients with generalized social phobia read negative statements about themselves, functional MRI scans revealed increased blood flow to the prefrontal cortex and amygdala — an indicator of increased activity in areas of the brain responsible for emotion. Healthy controls did not show similar patterns of activation while reading negative comments about themselves. There were no significant differences in brain activity between the two groups while reading negative comments about someone else, or while reading positive comments.

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