Social anxiety refers to the prevalent and debilitating experience of fear and anxiety of being scrutinized in social situations. It originates from both learned (e.g. adverse social conditioning) and innate (e.g. shyness) factors. Research on social anxiety has traditionally focused on negative emotions induced by visual and auditory social cues in socially anxious clinical populations, and posits a dysfunctional orbitofrontal-amygdala circuit as a primary etiological mechanism. Yet as a trait, social anxiety is independent of one's specific emotional state. Here we probe the neural substrate of intrinsic social anxiety by employing a unique type of social stimuli, airborne human social chemosensory cues that are inherently social, ubiquitously present, and yet operating below verbal awareness. We show that the adopted social chemosensory cues were not perceived to be human-related, did not differentially bias self-report of anxiety or autonomic nervous system responses, yet individuals with elevated social anxiety demonstrated a reduced recruitment of the orbitofrontal cortex to social chemosensory cues. No reciprocal activity in the amygdala was observed. Our findings point to an intrinsic neural substrate underlying social anxiety that is not associated with prior adverse social conditioning, thereby providing the first neural evidence for the inherent social aspect of this enigmatic phenomenon.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Cognitive Neuroscience