Error-Related Brain Activity in Anxious College Students 

Hajcak, G., McDonald, N. & Simons, R.F. 

University of Delaware

The error-related negativity (ERN/Ne) is a sharp negative deflection in the event-related brain potential (ERP), maximal at FCz, that occurs approximately 50-150 ms after the execution of an incorrect response.  The neural source of the ERN is been frequently attributed to the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and a recent fMRI study has suggested that this source may be in the dorsal ‘affective’ subdivision of the ACC.  This raises the possibility that the ERN may be related to affective or motivational aspects of response monitoring.  Functionally, the ACC is part of a fronto-striatal circuit that has been implicated in the pathophysiology of many anxiety disorders.  In support of this, the ERN has been shown to be significantly enhanced in patients with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), as well as in college undergraduates with OC characteristics, findings that are consistent with the notion that OCD symptoms are related to hyperactive response monitoring.  We extended these results by measuring the ERN in 67 college students who reported either general or specific fears, as assessed by the Penn State Worry Questionnaire (PSWQ) and a combined Snakes and Spiders Questionnaire (SNQ/SPQ).  Response-locked ERPs collected during a modified Stroop test revealed a sharp fronto-central negativity that was associated with errors.  Whether error trials were compared to all correct trials or only to a subset of correct trials matched to error trials on the basis of RT, the ERN was significantly larger in the worry group than in either of the other two groups.  Our results suggest that within the spectrum of anxiety disorders, an enhanced ERN may not be specific to OCD.  Rather, ERN amplitude may be related to broader constructs such as perfectionism or general negative affectivity that may characterize some (e.g., OCD, GAD), but not all patients with anxiety disorders, and may extend to patients outside the anxiety spectrum. 

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