Original Research ARTICLE

Front. Psychol., 14 December 2012 | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00557

Controllability modulates the anticipatory response in the human ventromedial prefrontal cortex

Deborah L. Kerr1,2*, Donald G. McLaren3,4,5,6, Robin M. Mathy7,8,9 and Jack B. Nitschke1,2,10
  • 1Waisman Center for Brain Imaging and Behavior, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI, USA
  • 2Department of Psychology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI, USA
  • 3Department of Neurology, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA, USA
  • 4Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, Massachusetts General Hospital, Charlestown, MA, USA
  • 5Geriatric Research, Education and Clinical Center, Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial VA Medical Center, Bedford, MA, USA
  • 6Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA
  • 7Kellogg College, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
  • 8Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK
  • 9Department of Social Science, Central Oregon Community College, Bend, OR, USA
  • 10Department of Psychiatry, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI, USA

Research has consistently shown that control is critical to psychological functioning, with perceived lack of control considered to play a crucial role in the manifestation of symptoms in psychiatric disorders. In a model of behavioral control based on non-human animal work, Maier et al. (2006) posited that the presence of control activates areas of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), which in turn inhibit the normative stress response in the dorsal raphe nucleus and amygdala. To test Maier’s model in humans, we investigated the effects of control over potent aversive stimuli by presenting video clips of snakes to 21 snake phobics who were otherwise healthy with no comorbid psychopathologies. Based on prior research documenting that disrupted neural processing during the anticipation of adverse events can be influenced by different forms of cognitive processing such as perceptions of control, analyses focused on the anticipatory activity preceding the videos. We found that phobics exhibited greater vmPFC activity during the anticipation of snake videos when they had control over whether the videos were presented as compared to when they had no control over the presentation of the videos. In addition, observed functional connectivity between the vmPFC and the amygdala is consistent with previous work documenting vmPFC inhibition of the amygdala. Our results provide evidence to support the extension of Maier’s model of behavioral control to include anticipatory function in humans.

Keywords: controllability, anticipation, vmPFC, amygdala, fMRI, PPI, phobia

Citation: Kerr DL, McLaren DG, Mathy RM and Nitschke JB (2012) Controllability modulates the anticipatory response in the human ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Front. Psychology 3:557. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00557

Received: 01 May 2012; Paper pending published: 29 June 2012;
Accepted: 27 November 2012; Published online: 14 December 2012.

Edited by:

Lihong Wang, Duke University, USA

Reviewed by:

Peter A. Bos, Utrecht University, Netherlands
Lihong Wang, Duke University, USA

Copyright: © 2012 Kerr, McLaren, Mathy and Nitschke. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in other forums, provided the original authors and source are credited and subject to any copyright notices concerning any third-party graphics etc.

*Correspondence: Deborah L. Kerr, Waisman Center for Brain Imaging and Behavior, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1500 Highland Avenue, Madison, WI 53705, USA. e-mail: kerr.deborah@gmail.com

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