Impaired White Matter Connectivity a Marker for Anxiety

The right hemisphere of the brain has been studied in relation to generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) in children. Magnetic resonance imaging of the right hemisphere has shown increased volume and activity of the amygdala, which influences threat and fear response. However, until recently, no studies have focused specifically on how the connectivity and communication of the white matter located in the right hemisphere affects symptoms of anxiety. P. Brambilla of the Department of Experimental Clinical Medical Sciences at the University of Udine in Italy led a study of white matter connectivity in 12 individuals with GAD and 15 controls. The participants underwent diffused weighted imaging (DWI) for white matter analysis.

The findings revealed that the participants with GAD had significantly poorer connectivity in their right hemisphere white matter than the controls. This area of the brain helps people identify themselves from those around them and affects visual processing, environmental awareness and attention. These capacities directly affect the way in which a person perceives the world around them, emotionally and socially. The researchers also found that the deficits in communication and integration of the white matter regions were similar to those found in other studies that showed sustained impairment in people experiencing heightened states of anxiety. In addition, other studies have suggested that right hemisphere communication errors are highly evident in schizophrenia, bipolar, and autism.

Brambilla believes that these findings support the theory that impaired communication in the right hemisphere white matter region could be an indicator of anxiety and threat sensitivity. People who suffer with anxiety may not be able to adequately manage stress because of the deficits in connectivity and therefore engage in negative and maladaptive behaviors such as self-blame, criticism, rumination, and catastrophizing. “In this regard, it is interesting to outline that dysfunctional coping cognitions have been reported in both adult and child patients with GAD who, for instance, have low esteem of their capacity to deal with stressors and negatively interpret ambiguous situations,” said Brambilla. The researchers hope that this study, the first to explore the specific communication breakdowns in right hemisphere white matter, will motivate others to continue research in this area in relation to other psychiatric illnesses.

Brambilla, P., Como, G., Isola, M., Taboga, F., Zuliana, R., Goljevscek, S., et al. White-matter Abnormalities in the Right Posterior Hemisphere in Generalized Anxiety Disorder: A Diffusion Imaging Study. Psychological Medicine 42.2 (2012): 427-34. Print.

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  • maisie

    March 2nd, 2012 at 5:18 AM

    I assume that you can’t do these types of studies unti the patinet is, ahem, deceased?

  • april

    March 2nd, 2012 at 10:09 AM

    Researchers can pinpoint the areas of the problems but it seems they have had a difficult time getting effective treatments to those who need it. It all sounds so complicated.

  • Marcus

    March 3rd, 2012 at 3:51 PM

    Wow there are so many different indicators for anxiety production within the human body it must be awfully difficult for scientists and therapists alike to really pinpoint the root of the cause for so many different patients. I guess while for some it is a biological thing for others it is more about the environment being the biggest part of the problem. And while it might be easier to recognize the things about ones surroundings that is causing the anxiety I bet for some it is easier to change the inner workings than to work on the external problems that are such a misery for others.

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