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fMRI Studies of Social Phobia

Social phobia is marked by overwhelming anxiety and self-consciousness in social situations. One approach to understanding anxiety disorders is to use functional brain imaging (fMRI) to explore how the brain responds to different types of social signals. fMRI can provide information on the relative activity—and thus the engagement—of different parts of the brain by tracking the local demands made for oxygen delivered by circulating blood. Recent research using fMRI found that when people with social phobia were presented with a variety of verbal comments about themselves and others ("you are ugly," or "he's a genius") they had heightened brain responses only to negative comments about themselves. These heightened responses occurred in two brain areas, the medial prefrontal cortex, which is involved in the sense and evaluation of self, and the amygdala, which is central to emotional processing. Other fMRI studies of social phobia have found that people with social phobia have heightened responses to a variety of positive, negative, and neutral facial expressions, not just expressions that others perceive as threatening.

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