Face processing in adolescents with positive and negative threat bias.
Anxious youth are at heightened risk for subsequent development of depression; however, little is known regarding which anxious youth are at the highest prospective risk. Biased attentional patterns (e.g., vigilance and avoidance of negative cues) are implicated as key mechanisms in both anxiety and depression. Aberrant attentional patterns may disrupt opportunities to effectively engage with, and learn from, threatening aspects of the environment during development and/or treatment, compounding risk over time. Sixty-seven anxious youth (ages 9-14; 36 female) completed a dot-probe task to assess baseline attentional patterns provoked by fearful-neutral face pairs. The time course of attentional patterns both during and after threat was assessed via eye-tracking and pupilometry. Self-reported depressive and anxiety symptoms were assessed 2 years after the conclusion of a larger psychotherapy treatment trial. Eye-tracking patterns indicating threat avoidance predicted greater 2-year depression scores, over and above baseline and posttreatment symptoms. Sustained, postthreat pupillary avoidance (reflecting preferential neural engagement with the neutral relative to the previously threatening location) predicted additional variance in depression scores, suggesting sustained avoidance in the wake of threat further exacerbated risk. Identical eye-tracking and pupil indices were not predictive of anxiety at 2 years. These biobehavioral markers imply that avoidant attentional processing in the context of anxiety may be a gateway to depression across a key maturational window. Excessive avoidance of threat could interfere with acquisition of adaptive emotion regulation skills during development, culminating in the broad behavioral deactivation that typifies depression. Prevention efforts explicitly targeting avoidant attentional patterns may be warranted.