Neuroeconomics to Study Decision-Making in Anxious Individuals

A review in Biological Psychiatry

Philadelphia, PA, July 23, 2012 - Anxiety disorders affect approximately 40 million American adults each year, and although they are treatable, they often cause significant distress.

The excessive fear and dread that accompanies anxiety disorders clearly influences the everyday decision-making processes of anxious individuals. Despite its importance, “there is surprisingly little research on how anxiety disorders influence decisions,” commented neuroscientist Dr. Elizabeth Phelps, who co-authored this new review with Dr. Catherine Hartley, both of New York University.

Their review highlights that science is “starting to gain some traction by combining emerging decision science with the study of anxiety. The overlap in the neural systems underlying anxiety and decision-making provides some insight into how fear and anxiety alters choices,” explained Dr. Phelps.

Dr. Hartley added, “Historically, research has focused on the influence of anxiety on how we attend to and interpret events. These same processes should shape how anxious individuals make decisions.”

Their review explores the role of anxiety in decision-making using a neuroeconomic approach. Neuroeconomics is an interdisciplinary field that combines tools from the fields of economics, neuroscience, and psychology to study the brain’s decision-making processes.

The authors discuss the overlap between the neural systems mediating fear and anxiety and those implicated in studies of economic decision-making. Neuroeconomics research has revealed that circuits involving the amygdala, insular cortex, and prefrontal cortex are involved in tasks with uncertainty or loss. The amygdala is a key brain region that helps regulate fear and anxiety, while the prefrontal cortex is critically involved in the control of fear.

The authors also review a set of decision-making biases exhibited by anxious individuals and propose that the neural circuitry supporting fear learning and regulation may mediate anxiety’s influence upon their choices.

“Hartley and Phelps provide an elegant example of how reward-related decision making may be affected by other neural circuitries, in this case the emotional processing system,” commented neuroeconomics experts Drs. Carla Sharp and P. Read Montague. “This is without a doubt part of the future of the application of neuroeconomics to psychiatric disorder, as no example of psychiatric disorder can be reduced simply to reward-related decision making.”

The article is “Anxiety and Decision-Making” by Catherine A. Hartley and Elizabeth A. Phelps (doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2011.12.027). The article appears in Biological Psychiatry, Volume 72, Issue 2 (July 15, 2012), published by Elsevier.


Notes for editors
Full text of the article is available to credentialed journalists upon request; contact Rhiannon Bugno at +1 214 648 0880 or Journalists wishing to interview the authors may contact Elizabeth Phelps at +1 212 998 8337or

The authors’ affiliations, and disclosures of financial and conflicts of interests are available in the article.

About Biological Psychiatry
Biological Psychiatry is the official journal of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, whose purpose is to promote excellence in scientific research and education in fields that investigate the nature, causes, mechanisms and treatments of disorders of thought, emotion, or behavior. In accord with this mission, this peer-reviewed, rapid-publication, international journal publishes both basic and clinical contributions from all disciplines and research areas relevant to the pathophysiology and treatment of major psychiatric disorders.

The journal publishes novel results of original research which represent an important new lead or significant impact on the field, particularly those addressing genetic and environmental risk factors, neural circuitry and neurochemistry, and important new therapeutic approaches. Reviews and commentaries that focus on topics of current research and interest are also encouraged.

Biological Psychiatry is one of the most selective and highly cited journals in the field of psychiatric neuroscience. It is ranked 5th out of 129 Psychiatry titles and 16th out of 243 Neurosciences titles in the Journal Citations Reports® published by Thomson Reuters. The 2011 Impact Factor score for Biological Psychiatry is 8.283.

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