Adolescence is an important neurodevelopmental period that confers both opportunity for positive change, and a risk for emerging psychopathology. In particular, anxiety disorders and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) both cause significant challenges during adolescence that impact individuals throughout their lifespan. Notably, functional impacts of anxiety and ASD are not limited to those who meet diagnostic criteria, and can be present at sub-clinical levels. However, despite high rates of co-morbidity of ASD and anxiety symptomology, the degree to which the neural bases of anxiety are similar or qualitatively different in individuals with and without autistic traits is unknown. One candidate neurobehavioral marker of anxiety is negative stimulus biases in cognition—i.e., prioritized attentional and executive processing of stimuli with a negative valence in individuals with greater anxiety. Utilizing a large neuroimaging repository such as the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) project allows us to probe these populations independently and in conjunction with enough power to elucidate differences with confidence and precision. Specifically, we used the ABCD study—specifically, ABCD’s emotional n-back task that uses affective stimuli in a working memory paradigm to probe the neural circuits implicated in negative stimulus bias—to compare negative stimulus bias across 4 well-matched subgroups of 9–10-year-old preadolescents: 1) high anxiety and low autistic traits (ANX; N=54), 2) high autistic traits and low anxiety (AUT; N=48), 3) high anxiety and autistic traits (DUAL; N=51), and 4) low anxiety and low autistic traits (CTRL; N=51). Behaviorally, groups did not significantly differ in the impact of emotional faces on working memory task performance, refuting a long-standing assumption about negative affective biases in cognitive processing in youth with clinically-significant anxiety, however negative threat biases were present more globally. fMRI results revealed subtle differences in neural recruitment, including aberrant recruitment of task-positive brain networks under high versus low cognitive load in clinical groups. Results also revealed potential evidence for a generalized increase in vigilance in preadolescence with anxiety—i.e., an overall increase in blood oxygenation-level dependent (BOLD) activation was present in those with high anxiety across most task-relevant clusters. Despite equivalent behavioral performance across groups, the impact of increasing cognitive load on positive and negative faces showed differential effects of group. Positive faces showed overall increased activation and decreased deactivation across clusters as a factor of anxious whereas negative faces showed no impacts of anxious traits. Autistic traits drove differential recruitment in several networks (dorsal attention, somatomotor, and default networks) in negative but not positive face interactions with cognitive load. Dual groups showed differential activation in both positive and negative cognitive load specific contrasts across multiple networks. This suggests differential neural recruitment may underpin emotional processing interactions with working memory in preadolescents with elevated anxiety and/or autistic traits, to achieve equivalent behavioral outcomes.
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Mullins, Teagan. "Impact of Emotional Processing on Working Memory in Preadolescents with High Autistic and Anxiety Traits." (2023). https://digitalrepository.unm.edu/psy_etds/384