Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex Activity and Sympathetic Allostasis During Value-Based Ambivalence
Anxiety is characterized by low confidence in daily decisions, coupled with high levels of phenomenological stress. Ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) plays an integral role in maladaptive anxious behaviors via decreased sensitivity to threatening vs., non-threatening stimuli (fear generalization). vmPFC is also a key node in approach-avoidance decision making requiring two dimensional integration of rewards and costs. More recently, vmPFC has been implicated as a key cortical input to the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. However, little is known about the role of this brain region in mediating rapid stress responses elicited by changes in confidence during decision making. We used an approach-avoidance task to examine the relationship between sympathetically mediated cardiac stress responses, vmPFC activity and choice behavior over long and short time-scales. To do this, we collected concurrent fMRI, EKG and impedance cardiography recordings of sympathetic drive while participants made approach-avoidance decisions about monetary rewards paired with painful electric shock stimuli. We observed first that increased sympathetic drive(shorter pre-ejection period) in states lasting minutes are associated with choices involving reduced decision ambivalence. Thus, on this slow time scale, sympathetic drive serves as a proxy for “mobilization” whereby participants are more likely to show consistent value-action mapping. In parallel, imaging analyses reveal that on shorter time scales (estimated with a trial-to-trial GLM), increased vmPFC activity, particularly during low-ambivalence decisions, is associated with decreased sympathetic state. Our findings support a role of sympathetic drive in resolving decision ambivalence across longtime horizons and suggest a potential role of vmPFC in modulating this response on a moment-to-moment basis.