Short-term serotonergic but not noradrenergic antidepressant administration reduces attentional vigilance to threat in healthy volunteers.
Murphy SE., Yiend J., Lester KJ., Cowen PJ., Harmer CJ.
Anxiety is associated with threat-related biases in information processing such as heightened attentional vigilance to potential threat. Such biases are an important focus of psychological treatments for anxiety disorders. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are effective in the treatment of a range of anxiety disorders. The aim of this study was to assess the effect of an SSRI on the processing of threat in healthy volunteers. A selective noradrenergic reuptake inhibitor (SNRI), which is not generally used in the treatment of anxiety, was used as a contrast to assess the specificity of SSRI effects on threat processing. Forty-two healthy volunteers were randomly assigned to 7 d double-blind intervention with the SSRI citalopram (20 mg/d), the SNRI reboxetine (8 mg/d), or placebo. On the final day, attentional and interpretative bias to threat was assessed using the attentional probe and the homograph primed lexical decision tasks. Citalopram reduced attentional vigilance towards fearful faces but did not affect the interpretation of ambiguous homographs as threatening. Reboxetine had no significant effect on either of these measures. Citalopram reduces attentional orienting to threatening stimuli, which is potentially relevant to its clinical use in the treatment of anxiety disorders. This finding supports a growing literature suggesting that an important mechanism through which pharmacological agents may exert their effects on mood is by reversing the cognitive biases that characterize the disorders that they treat. Future studies are needed to clarify the neural mechanisms through which these effects on threat processing are mediated.