Background Negative self-views, especially in the domain of power (i.e. social-rank), characterize social anxiety (SA). Neuroimaging studies on self-evaluations in SA have mainly focused on subcortical threat processing systems. Yet, self-evaluation may concurrently invoke diverse affective processing, as motivational systems related to desired self-views may also be activated. To investigate the conflictual nature that may accompany self-evaluation of certain social domains in SA, we examined brain activity related to both threat and reward processing. Methods Participants (N = 74) differing in self-reported SA-severity underwent fMRI while completing a self-evaluation task, wherein they judged the self-descriptiveness of high- v. low-intensity traits in the domains of power and affiliation (i.e. social connectedness). Participants also completed two auxiliary fMRI tasks designated to evoke reward- and threat-related activations in the ventral striatum (VS) and amygdala, respectively. We hypothesized that self-evaluations in SA, particularly in the domain of power, involve aberrant brain activity related to both threat and reward processing. Results SA-severity was more negatively associated with power than with affiliation self-evaluations. During self-evaluative judgment of high-power (e.g. dominant), SA-severity associated with increased activity in the VS and ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Moreover, SA-severity correlated with higher similarity between brain activity patterns activated by high-power traits and patterns activated by incentive salience (i.e. reward anticipation) in the VS during the reward task. Conclusions Our findings indicate that self-evaluation of high-power in SA involves excessive striatal reward-related activation, and pinpoint the downregulation of VS-VMPFC activity within such self-evaluative context as a potential neural outcome for therapeutic interventions.
- Social anxiety