Threat-induced anxiety during goal pursuit disrupts amygdala-prefrontal cortex connectivity in posttraumatic stress disorder


To investigate how unpredictable threat during goal pursuit impacts fronto-limbic activity and functional connectivity in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), we compared military veterans with PTSD (n = 25) vs. trauma-exposed control (n = 25). Participants underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while engaged in a computerized chase-and-capture game task that involved optimizing monetary rewards obtained from capturing virtual prey while simultaneously avoiding capture by virtual predators. The game was played under two alternating contexts-one involving exposure to unpredictable task-irrelevant threat from randomly occurring electrical shocks, and a nonthreat control condition. Activation in and functional connectivity between the amygdala and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) was tested across threat and nonthreat task contexts with generalized psychophysiological interaction (gPPI) analyses. PTSD patients reported higher anxiety than controls across contexts. Better task performance represented by successfully avoiding capture by predators under threat compared with nonthreat contexts was associated with stronger left amygdala-vmPFC functional connectivity in controls and greater vmPFC activation in PTSD patients. PTSD symptom severity was negatively correlated with vmPFC activation in trauma-exposed controls and with right amygdala-vmPFC functional connectivity across all participants in the threat relative to nonthreat contexts. The findings showed that veterans with PTSD have disrupted amygdala-vmPFC functional connectivity and greater localized vmPFC processing under threat modulation of goal-directed behavior, specifically related to successfully avoiding loss of monetary rewards. In contrast, trauma survivors without PTSD relied on stronger threat-modulated left amygdala-vmPFC functional connectivity during goal-directed behavior, which may represent a resilience-related functional adaptation.