Threat Interpretation Bias as Cognitive Marker and Treatment Target in Pediatric Anxiety

  • End date
    Sep 10, 2022
  • participants needed
  • sponsor
    University of Denver
Updated on 25 January 2021
psychotropic drugs
selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors


Anxiety is the most common mental health problem in children and adolescents. This two-phased study will test the effects of an experimental computerized intervention aimed at reducing threat-based thinking (i.e., interpretation bias) in anxious youth. Participants in both the R61 (N=46) and R33 (N=72) trials will be youth ages 10 to 17 with a primary anxiety disorder (Separation, Social, Generalized). In the R61 trial, youth will be randomly assigned to receive 16 sessions over 4 weeks of either a personalized cognitive bias modification program for interpretation bias (CBM-I) or a computerized control condition (ICC). If CBM-I reduces interpretation bias significantly more than the ICC, the R33 trial will commence. In the R33, youth will be randomly assigned to either CBM-I or an equal amount of time in a cognitive restructuring intervention, which also aims to reduce threat-based thinking in anxiety.


Anxiety is the most common mental health problem in youth, affecting one in four children and adolescents. Unfortunately, evidence-based treatments (pharmacotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy) are costly, not widely available, and ineffective for a substantial proportion of youth. In response, experts have called for novel treatments that directly target mechanisms underlying youth anxiety while simultaneously addressing barriers to care (i.e., cost, accessibility). One such promising mechanism is interpretation bias - the inaccurate interpretation of threat from ambiguity. The investigators have previously demonstrated that interpretation bias occurs in over 90% of anxious youth, is predictive of anxiety severity in clinical samples of youth, and differentiates between anxious and non-anxious youth. These data indicate that interpretation bias may be a ubiquitous phenomenon underlying anxiety expression in children and adolescents and therefore may be an ideal intervention target. Cognitive bias modification for interpretation bias (CBM-I) is a computerized intervention that attempts to reduce anxiety by directly modifying interpretation bias. CBM-I has demonstrated preliminary efficacy for reducing anxiety symptoms in adults. Yet extant CBM-I data in anxious youth are sparse, with little work addressing whether CBM-I significantly reduces interpretation bias, and whether this in turn reduces anxiety symptoms, as well as the dose necessary to reduce both bias and anxiety. This two-phased study tests personalized CBM-I in youth ages 10 to 17 who meet diagnostic criteria for a primary anxiety disorder (Separation, Social, Generalized). In the R61 Phase (N=46), a randomized clinical trial (RCT) examines whether CBM-I personalized to youth anxiety symptoms significantly reduces interpretation bias compared to a computerized interpretation control condition (ICC). The interpretation target will be measured at multiple time points (4, 8, 12, 16 sessions) to identify the optimal dose for reduction in interpretation bias. If the R61 trial results indicate that CBM-I outperforms ICC on interpretation bias reduction, the R33 phase will commence. In the R33 Phase, an RCT (N=72) will validate whether CBM-I significantly reduces interpretation bias, and conducts a mechanism test (i.e., does bias reduction precede and predict anxiety reduction?), by comparing CBM-I to cognitive restructuring, a clinically relevant psychosocial intervention that also targets anxious cognition.

Condition ANXIETY NEUROSIS, Anxiety Disorders (Pediatric), Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD - Pediatric), Anxiety Disorders, anxiety disorder
Treatment Cognitive Bias Modification for Interpretations (CBM-I), Interpretation Control Condition (ICC)
Clinical Study IdentifierNCT04245501
SponsorUniversity of Denver
Last Modified on25 January 2021


Yes No Not Sure

Inclusion Criteria

youth aged 10 to 17
diagnosed at study baseline with a primary "big three" anxiety disorder (Separation, Social, Generalized)
standard score greater than or equal to 85 on the Wide Range Achievement Test - Word Reading Subtest (to ensure ability to read stimuli during interpretation bias assessment and CBM-I/ICC), and estimated IQ standard score of at least 80 on the Wechsler Abbreviated Scale of Intelligence
youth and consenting parent/legal guardian speak sufficient English to complete consent/assent and study procedures
no concurrent psychosocial services during study participation to reduce likelihood that other interventions are responsible for change in primary or secondary outcomes
no psychotropic medications with no plans to start medications during study, or six weeks stable on SSRI or psychostimulant medication and dose with no plans to change medication/dose during study

Exclusion Criteria

severe anxiety indicting that youth requires higher level of care (e.g., intensive treatment such as psychiatric hospitalization), significant diagnostic comorbidity (e.g., presence of psychosis or significant mood disorder), or another primary diagnosis that warrants alternate intervention
significant uncorrected vision impairment (e.g., uncorrected blindness) that precludes participation in CBM-I/ICC
safety concerns due to recent or acute suicidality with plan, intent, and/or attempt that warrants alternate intervention
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