Humans, like other animals, alter their behavior depending on whether a threat is close or distant. We investigated spatial imminence of threat by developing an active avoidance paradigm in which volunteers were pursued through a maze by a virtual predator endowed with an ability to chase, capture, and inflict pain. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we found that as the virtual predator grew closer, brain activity shifted from the ventromedial prefrontal cortex to the periaqueductal gray. This shift showed maximal expression when a high degree of pain was anticipated. Moreover, imminence-driven periaqueductal gray activity correlated with increased subjective degree of dread and decreased confidence of escape. Our findings cast light on the neural dynamics of threat anticipation and have implications for the neurobiology of human anxiety-related disorders.
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We thank C. Hagan and U. Frith for helpful comments. Supported by a Brain Research Trust Prize studentship (D.M.) and by the Wellcome Trust.
Volume 317 | Issue 5841
24 August 2007
24 August 2007
American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Received: 26 April 2007
Accepted: 10 July 2007
Published in print: 24 August 2007
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