Anxiety sensitivity correlates with two indices of right anterior insula structure in specific animal phobia

Rosso IM, Makris N, Britton JC, Price LM, Gold AL, Zai D, Bruyere J, Deckersbach T, Killgore WD, Rauch SL

Depress Anxiety 2010 Dec;27(12):1104-10

PMID: 21132846


BACKGROUND: Anxiety sensitivity (AS) is a dispositional trait involving fear of anxiety-related symptoms. Functional imaging research suggests that the activity of the anterior insular cortex, particularly the right insula, may both mediate AS and play a role in the pathophysiology of phobias. However, no imaging studies have examined whether AS relates to insula morphology. We examined whether AS was significantly correlated with right anterior insula volume and thickness among adults with specific animal phobia (SAP) and healthy comparison (HC) subjects.

METHODS: Nineteen adults with SAP and 20 demographically group-matched HC subjects underwent magnetic resonance imaging at 3 Tesla. Subjects also completed the Anxiety Sensitivity Index (ASI). Regression and correlation analyses examined ASI scores in relation to anterior and posterior insular cortex volume and thickness within and across subject groups.

RESULTS: SAP subjects had significantly higher ASI scores than HC, but did not differ in terms of insula volumes or thickness. ASI scores predicted right anterior insula thickness in SAP but not HC subjects, and right anterior insula volume in the sample as a whole. Correlations of ASI scores with the anterior and posterior insula volume and thickness were not significant in either group.

CONCLUSIONS: These findings suggest that the right anterior insular cortex size is a neural substrate of AS within specific phobia, rather than an independent diagnostic marker of the disorder. Future investigations should examine whether heightened AS represents a shared intermediate phenotype across anxiety disorders, manifesting functionally as increased insular reactivity and clinically as a fear of anxiety symptoms.