Efficacy and mechanisms underlying a gamified attention bias modification training in anxious youth: protocol for a randomized controlled trial

Linke, Julia O.; Jones, Emily; Pagliaccio, David; Swetlitz, Caroline; Lewis, Krystal M.; Silverman, Wendy K.; Bar-Haim, Yair; Pine, Daniel S.; Brotman, Melissa A.

Attention bias modification training (ABMT) and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) likely target different aspects of aberrant threat responses in anxiety disorders and may be combined to maximize therapeutic benefit. However, studies investigating the effect of ABMT in the context of CBT have yielded mixed results. Here, we propose an enhanced ABMT to target the attentional bias towards threat, in addition to classic CBT for anxiety disorders in youth. This enhanced ABMT integrates the modified dot-probe task used in previous studies, where a target is always presented at the previous location of the neutral and not the simultaneously presented threatening stimulus, with a visual search, where the targets are always presented distally of threatening distractors. These two training elements (modified dot-probe and visual search) are embedded in an engaging game to foster motivation and adherence. Our goal is to determine the efficacy of the enhanced ABMT in the context of CBT. Further, we aim to replicate two previous findings: (a) aberrant amygdala connectivity being the neurobiological correlate of the attentional bias towards threat at baseline; and (b) amygdala connectivity being a mediator of the ABMT effect. We will also explore moderators of treatment response (age, sex, depressive symptoms and irritability) on a behavioral and neuronal level.

One hundred and twenty youth (8–17 years old) with a primary anxiety disorder diagnosis all receive CBT and are randomized to nine weeks of either active or control ABMT and symptom improvement will be compared between the two study arms. We will also recruit 60 healthy comparison youth, who along with eligible anxious youth, will be assessed with the dot-probe task during fMRI (anxious youth: before and after training; healthy volunteers: second measurement twelve weeks after initial assessment).

The present study will contribute to the literature by (1) potentially replicating that aberrant amygdala connectivity mediates the attentional bias towards threat in anxious youth; (2) determining the efficacy of enhanced ABMT; and (3) advancing our understanding of the mechanisms underlying ABMT.

Trial registration

Trial registration date: September 14th 2017. The trial registration took place retrospectively. Data acquisition started February 1st 2017.


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September 22, 2023


Attention bias modification, Cognitive behavioral therapy, Randomized controlled trial, Anxiety, Youth, fMRI, Gamification