The impact of anxiety-inducing distraction on cognitive performance: a combined brain imaging and personality investigation.


BACKGROUND: Previous investigations revealed that the impact of task-irrelevant emotional distraction on ongoing goal-oriented cognitive processing is linked to opposite patterns of activation in emotional and perceptual vs. cognitive control/executive brain regions. However, little is known about the role of individual variations in these responses. The present study investigated the effect of trait anxiety on the neural responses mediating the impact of transient anxiety-inducing task-irrelevant distraction on cognitive performance, and on the neural correlates of coping with such distraction. We investigated whether activity in the brain regions sensitive to emotional distraction would show dissociable patterns of co-variation with measures indexing individual variations in trait anxiety and cognitive performance. METHODOLOGY/PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: Event-related fMRI data, recorded while healthy female participants performed a delayed-response working memory (WM) task with distraction, were investigated in conjunction with behavioural measures that assessed individual variations in both trait anxiety and WM performance. Consistent with increased sensitivity to emotional cues in high anxiety, specific perceptual areas (fusiform gyrus--FG) exhibited increased activity that was positively correlated with trait anxiety and negatively correlated with WM performance, whereas specific executive regions (right lateral prefrontal cortex--PFC) exhibited decreased activity that was negatively correlated with trait anxiety. The study also identified a role of the medial and left lateral PFC in coping with distraction, as opposed to reflecting a detrimental impact of emotional distraction. CONCLUSIONS: These findings provide initial evidence concerning the neural mechanisms sensitive to individual variations in trait anxiety and WM performance, which dissociate the detrimental impact of emotion distraction and the engagement of mechanisms to cope with distracting emotions. Our study sheds light on the neural correlates of emotion-cognition interactions in normal behaviour, which has implications for understanding factors that may influence susceptibility to affective disorders, in general, and to anxiety disorders, in particular.





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Publication Info

Denkova, Ekaterina, Gloria Wong, Sanda Dolcos, Keen Sung, Lihong Wang, Nicholas Coupland and Florin Dolcos (2010). The impact of anxiety-inducing distraction on cognitive performance: a combined brain imaging and personality investigation. PLoS One, 5(11). p. e14150. 10.1371/journal.pone.0014150 Retrieved from

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Lihong Wang

Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences

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