Attention and emotion have a bidirectional relationship, which serves a strong role in driving human behavior. The purpose of the present proposal is to advance our understanding of the cognitive and neural mechanisms that underlie attention-emotion interactions and individual differences in anxiety. Specifically, the proposed project will use a combination of behavioral and novel event-related potential (ERP) measures to characterize the precise mechanisms and time course of attentional allocation to emotional stimuli. Emotional stimuli that are threatening in nature have been shown to be especially potent modulators of attention. Indeed, abnormal allocation of attention to threatening stimuli has been implicated as a potential etiological factor in anxiety disorders. The proposed research will examine neural and behavioral indices of attention in the context of threat to pinpoint the basic mechanisms that drive attention-emotion interactions and individual differences in anxiety. We will use a well-validated ERP measure of the allocation of attention (the N2pc component) to assess the magnitude and time course of attentional allocation to threatening stimuli. We will also use a newly discovered ERP measure of attentional suppression (the Pd component) to assess the top-down suppression of threatening stimuli. Together, these two ERP measures will make it possible to isolate separate aspects of threat processing that are ordinarily intermixed in behavioral measures. Moreover, the proposed project will examine how these processes vary as a function of individual differences in trait anxiety to characterize the role of atypical attentional processes in characterizing anxiety. This follows from pilot data in which we observed substantial individual differences in ERP indices of suppression of threat, which in turn made it possible to identify individual differences in behavioral measures of threat processing. We will also examine the effects of direct manipulations of state anxiety on these measures. Moreover, because anxiety disorders often involve the acquisition of conditioned emotional responses, we will also examine attention and suppression in the context of conditioned threat. This research will serve an important role in furthering our basic science understanding of the relationships among attention, emotion, and anxiety, and it will also inform future clinical work on anxiety.
Anxiety disorders are a major public health concern, with some form of anxiety disorder affecting around 18% of the US population. Recent research has shown that abnormal allocation of attention to threatening information may be a driving force in anxiety;however, little work has been done to uncover the precise neural and cognitive mechanisms that underlie this dysfunction. The present project will elucidate the cognitive and neural mechanisms by which attention to threat operates and determine how these processes are related to individual differences in anxiety.