When fear is near: threat imminence elicits prefrontal-periaqueductal gray shifts in humans.
Mobbs D., Petrovic P., Marchant JL., Hassabis D., Weiskopf N., Seymour B., Dolan RJ., Frith CD.
Humans, like other animals, alter their behavior depending on whether a threat is close or distant. We investigated spatial imminence of threat by developing an active avoidance paradigm in which volunteers were pursued through a maze by a virtual predator endowed with an ability to chase, capture, and inflict pain. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we found that as the virtual predator grew closer, brain activity shifted from the ventromedial prefrontal cortex to the periaqueductal gray. This shift showed maximal expression when a high degree of pain was anticipated. Moreover, imminence-driven periaqueductal gray activity correlated with increased subjective degree of dread and decreased confidence of escape. Our findings cast light on the neural dynamics of threat anticipation and have implications for the neurobiology of human anxiety-related disorders.