Social Phobia. From Epidemiology to Brain Function

Abstract: Social phobia is a disabling anxiety disorder characterized by an excessive fear of negative evaluation in social situations. The present thesis explored the epidemiology and neurobiology of the disorder. By means of a mailed questionnaire, the point prevalence of social phobia in the Swedish general population was estimated at 15.6%. However, prevalence rates varied between 1.9 and 20.4% across the different levels of distress and impairment used to define cases. Thus, although social anxiety is widespread within the community, the precise diagnostic boundaries for social phobia are difficult to determine. Social phobia was associated with female gender, low educational attainment, psychoactive medication use, and lack of social support. A cluster analysis revealed that subtypes of social phobia mainly differed dimensionally on a mild-moderate-severe continuum, with number of cases declining with increasing severity. Public speaking was the most common social fear in all groups of social phobics and in the population at large.In the neurobiological studies, positron emission tomography was used to examine brain serotonin metabolism and changes in the regional cerebral blood flow (rCBF) response to public speaking stress following treatment with a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) or cognitive-behavioral group therapy. Social phobics exhibited lowered serotonin turnover, relative to non-phobics, mainly in the medial temporal cortex including the bilateral rhinal and periamygdaloid regions. Symptom improvement with cognitive-behavioral- as well as SSRI-treatment was accompanied by a reduced rCBF-response to public speaking in the amygdala, hippocampus and adjacent temporal cortex, i.e. regions that serve important functions in anxiety. Thorough suppression of rCBF in limbic brain regions was associated with favorable long-term treatment outcome. These results provide neuroimaging evidence for a presynaptic serotonergic dysfunction in social phobia and for a common neural mechanism whereby psychological and pharmacological anti-anxiety treatments act.