Primate Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex and the Physiological and Behavioural Dysfunction Characteristic of Mood and Anxiety Disorders

Change log

The heterogeneity intrinsic to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) is evidenced in both its anatomy and implicated function: vmPFC subregions have roles in positive affect, negative affect and autonomic/endocrine regulation. Whether different subregions serve fundamentally different functions, or whether they perform similar computations on different inputs, remains unclear. Nevertheless, the role of the vmPFC in psychopathology is widely appreciated – in mood and anxiety disorders, over-activity within constituent regions of the vmPFC is consistently implicated in symptomatology, together with its normalisation following successful treatment. However, the precise locus of change varies between studies.

The work presented in this thesis investigates the causal contributions of over-activity within two key subregions of the vmPFC – the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sgACC, area 25) and perigenual anterior cingulate cortex (pgACC, area 32) – in discrete dimensions of behaviour and physiology affected in psychiatric disorders. Specifically, the impact of over-activity is assessed on (i) baseline physiological function; (ii) the regulation of anticipatory, motivational and consummatory aspects of reward-related behaviour; and (iii) negative affect including fear learning, stress recovery and the intolerance of uncertainty. To provide further insight into the mechanism of action of antidepressants, the efficacy of selected treatments is tested on changes induced by over-activity of these regions.

Beyond the direct relevance of the results presented here to psychiatric disorders and their treatment, the thesis aims to emphasise the importance of broader themes associated with the measurement and quantification of emotion in preclinical animal studies. First, a multi-faceted approach is utilised enabling quantification of both the autonomic and behavioural aspects of emotion. In so doing, the experiments maintain relevance to studies which assess these correlates in isolation, both in humans (which typically measure subjective responses and physiology) and in rodents (which frequently assess behaviour in isolation). The assessment of more than one dimension of emotion confers these studies with improved power to detect maladaptive changes. Second, the experiments described were conducted in the marmoset, a new-world primate. The extensive anatomical homology between marmoset and human prefrontal cortex facilitates the forward-translation of functional results. In combination with the appropriate assays, this renders marmosets as an invaluable species to study the causal contributions of vmPFC subregions to symptoms of psychiatric disorders.

I believe that the results of these experiments provide important insights into the causal role primate vmPFC has in relation to the behavioural and physiological aspects of psychiatric symptomatology. Most importantly, I hope that they serve as the foundation for future work to further elucidate the neuropathological processes underlying mental disorders.

Roberts, Angela
depression, anhedonia, anterior cingulate, subgenual, area 25, area 32, reward, motivation, ketamine, PET imaging, anxiety, prefrontal, cortisol
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
MRC DTP Studentship