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I Knew They Weren’t Going to Like Me! Social Anxiety is Associated With Neural Response to Accurately Predicting Rejection

Sat, March 23, 9:45 to 11:15am, Baltimore Convention Center, Level 3, Room 321

Integrative Statement

Social anxiety (SA) disorder typically emerges in adolescence, potentially due to a normative increase in desire for peer acceptance. This increased desire for peer acceptance occurs during a phase of development in which the functional neural circuits that support reward processing undergo critical changes. Despite the salience of peer acceptance and rejection during adolescence, neural response to reward processing has largely been examined in the monetary domain. In one of the few studies to test brain-based differences in social and non-social reward processing in late adolescents, we showed that the RewP, an EEG-based event related potential thought to index engagement of the reinforcement learning system (Distefano et al., 2018) was elicited by both social and monetary rewards. Furthermore, in a separate sample, a unique relation between social anxiety and the RewP emerged when participants learned a peer disliked them: more severe symptoms were associated with a larger RewP. Thus, negative peer feedback may engage the reinforcement learning system in socially anxious late adolescents, providing a potential mechanism for the onset or maintenance of social anxiety symptoms.

The present study extends this work to fMRI in younger adolescents, and builds on it by isolating relations between social anxiety and striatal response to accurately predicting positive and negative feedback in social and non-social domains.

Adolescents (N=26, 16 females, Mage = 13.00, SDage =1.166) in an ongoing study underwent an fMRI scan while completing novel, well-matched monetary and social feedback tasks in which one pair of stimuli was presented on each trial. For each task, participants were asked to identify the door or age-matched peer that would provide positive feedback (win money/social like), or to correctly identify the door or peer that would provide negative feedback (lose money/social dislike). Social feedback was purportedly based on ratings provided by other participants who evaluated a photograph the participant provided prior to their visit. Self-reported social anxiety was also assessed. Data were extracted from ventral striatum, a brain region implicated in reinforcement learning, and analyzed in SPSS.

A Task (monetary vs. social) X Valence of Prediction (positive vs. negative) X Outcome (correct vs. incorrect) X social anxiety repeated measures ANOVA revealed a significant interaction in right ventral striatum F(1, 24) = 4.475, p = .045. Unique relations between social anxiety and brain function were observed in the social (F(1, 24) = 5.117, p = .033), but not monetary feedback task (F(1, 24) = 0.140, p = .711). More specifically, for the social feedback task, more severe social anxiety symptoms were associated with correctly identifying peers who provided dislike feedback (r =.305).

Discovering that you accurately predicted a peer was going to dislike you engaged brain regions implicated in reward learning. This, paired with our prior findings obtained with EEG, suggests a brain-based mechanism that may support social anxiety symptoms during a critical phase of development.


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