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The role of automatic cognitive responses to threat in mental health

Goal: Explore the role of threat-related processing in aggression and mental health.

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Thomas Edward Gladwin
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Concerns have been raised about the low reliability of measurements of spatial attentional bias via RT differences in dot-probe tasks. The anticipatory form of the bias, directed towards predicted future stimuli, appears to have relatively good reliability, reaching around 0.70. However, studies thus far have not attempted to experimentally control task-related influence on bias, which could further improve reliability. Evoking top-down versus bottom-up conflict may furthermore reveal associations with individual differences related to mental health. In the current study, a sample of 143 participants performed a predictive Visual Probe Task (predVPT) with angry and neutral face stimuli online. In this task, an automatic bias is induced via visually neutral cues that predict the location of an upcoming angry face. A task-relevant bias was induced via blockwise shifts in the likely location of target stimuli. The bias score resulting from these factors was calculated as RTs to target stimuli at locations of predicted but not actually presented angry versus neutral faces. Correlations were tested with anxiety, depression , self-esteem and aggression scales. An overall bias towards threat was found with a split-half reliability of 0.90, and 0.89 after outlier removal. Avoidance of threat in blocks with a task-relevant bias away from threat was correlated with anxiety, with correction for multiple testing. The same relationship was nominally significant for depression and low self-esteem. In conclusion, we showed high reliability of spatial attentional bias that was related to anxiety.
Thomas Edward Gladwin
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Threatening stimuli have varying effects, including reaction time (RT) increase in working memory tasks. This could reflect disruption of working memory or, alternatively, a reversible state of freezing. In the current series of experiments, reversible slowing due to anticipated threat was studied using the cued Virtual Attack Emotional Sternberg Task (cVAEST). In this task visually neutral cues indicate whether a future virtual attack could or could not occur during the maintenance period of a Sternberg task. Three studies (N = 47, 40, and 40, respectively) were performed by healthy adult participants online. The primary hypothesis was that the cVAEST would evoke anticipatory slowing. Further, the studies aimed to explore details of this novel task, in particular the interval between the cue and probe stimuli and the memory set size. In all studies it was found that threat anticipation slowed RTs on the working memory task. Further, Study 1 (memory set size 3) showed a decrease in RT when the attack occurred over all Cue Stimulus Intervals (CSIs). In Study 2 a minimal memory set of one item was used, under which circumstances RTs following attacks were only faster shortly after cue presentation (CSI 200 and 500 ms), when RTs were high for both threat and safe cues. Study 3 replicated results of Study 2 with more fine-grained time intervals. The results confirm that anticipation of attack stimuli can reversibly slow responses on an independent working memory task. The cVAEST may provide a useful method to study such threat-induced response slowing.
Thomas Edward Gladwin
added 2 research items
Threatening stimuli have varying effects, including reaction time increase in working memory tasks. This could reflect disruption of working memory or, alternatively, a reversible state of freezing. In the current series of experiments, reversible slowing due to anticipated threat was studied using the cued Virtual Attack Emotional Sternberg Task (cVAEST). In this task visually neutral cues indicate whether a future virtual attack could or could not occur during the maintenance period of a Sternberg task. Three studies (N = 47, 40, and 40, respectively) were performed by healthy adult participants online. The primary hypothesis was that the cVAEST would evoke anticipatory slowing. Further, the studies aimed to explore details of this novel task, in particular the interval between the cue and probe stimuli and the memory set size. In all studies it was found that threat anticipation slowed RTs on the working memory task. Further, Study 1 (memory set size 3) showed a decrease in RT when the attack occurred over all CSIs. In Study 2 a minimal memory set of one item was used, under which circumstances RTs following attacks were only faster shortly after cue presentation (CSI 200 and 500 ms), when RTs were high for both threat and safe cues. Study 3 replicated results of Study 2 with more fine-grained time intervals. The results confirm that anticipation of attack stimuli can reversibly slow responses on an independent working memory task. The cVAEST may provide a useful method to study such threat-induced response slowing.
Cues that predict the future location of emotional stimuli may evoke an anticipatory form of automatic attentional bias. The reliability of this bias towards threat is uncertain: experimental design may need to be optimized or individual differences may simply be relatively noisy in the general population. The current study therefore aimed to determine the split-half reliability of the bias, in a design with fewer factors and more trials than in previous work. A sample of 63 participants was used for analysis, who performed the cued Visual Probe Task online, which aims to measure an anticipatory attentional bias. The overall bias towards threat was tested and split-half reliability was calculated over even and odd blocks. Results showed a significant bias towards threat and a reliability of around .7. The results support systematic individual differences in anticipatory attentional bias and demonstrate that RT-based bias scores, with online data collection, can be reliable.
Thomas Edward Gladwin
added a research item
Temporary free access: https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1aDWt_6zzLsDQX Previous studies suggest that cues predicting the outcome of attentional shifts provide a measure of anticipatory alcohol-related attentional bias that is correlated with risky drinking and has high reliability. However, this is complicated by potential contributions of visual features of cues to reliability, unrelated to their predictive value. Further, little is known of the sensitivity of the bias to variations in cue-outcome mapping manipulations, limiting our theoretical and methodological knowledge: Does the bias robustly follow varying cue-outcome mappings, or are there automatic cue-related associative processes involved? The current studies aimed to address these issues. Participants performed variations of the cued Visual Probe Task (cVPT) in which cues were non-predictive; in which there were multiple cue pairs, used simultaneously and serially; and in which the cue-outcome mapping was reversed. The major findings were, first, that previously found reliability cannot be attributed to aspects of the cues not related to outcome-prediction; second, that reliability of the bias does not survive deviations from a simple, consistent cue-outcome mapping; third, that all predictive versions of the task showed a bias towards alcohol; fourth, that the bias did not simply follow awareness of the cue-outcome mapping; and finally, that only in the case of simultaneous multiple cue pairs, an association with risky drinking was replicated. The results provide support for the reliability of the anticipatory attentional bias for alcohol, suggest that relatively persistent associative processes underlie the bias in the alcohol context, and provide a foundation for future work using the cVPT.
Thomas Edward Gladwin
added a research item
In press at Consciousness and Cognition. Threatening stimuli are thought to induce impulsive responses, but Emotional Go/Nogo task results are not in line with this. We extend previous research by comparing effects of task-relevance of emotional stimuli and virtual proximity. Four studies were performed to test this in healthy college students. When emotional stimuli were task-relevant, threat both increased commission errors and decreased RT, but this was not found when emotional stimuli were task-irrelevant. This was found in both between-subject and within-subject designs. These effects were found using a task version with equal go and nogo rates, but not with 90%-10% go-nogo rates. Proximity was found to increase threat-induced speeding, with task-relevant stimuli only, although effects on accuracy were less clear. Threat stimuli can thus induce impulsive responding, but effects depend on features of the task design. The results may be of use in understanding theoretically unexpected results involving threat and impulsivity and designing future studies.
Thomas Edward Gladwin
added a research item
Threatening stimuli are thought to induce impulsive responses, but Emotional Go/Nogo task results are not in line with this. We extend previous research by testing effects of task-relevance of emotional stimuli and virtual proximity. Four studies were performed to test this in healthy college students. When emotional stimuli were task-relevant, threat both increased commission errors and decreased RT, but this was not found when emotional stimuli were task-irrelevant. This was found in both between-subject and within-subject designs. These effects were found using a task version with equal go and nogo rates, but not with 90-10% go-nogo rates. Proximity was found to increase threat-induced speeding, with task-relevant stimuli only, although effects on accuracy were less clear. Threat stimuli can thus induce impulsive responding, but effects depend on features of the task design. The results may be of use in understanding theoretically unexpected results involving threat and impulsivity and designing future studies.
Thomas Edward Gladwin
added 3 research items
Attention Bias Modification (ABM) aims to modulate attentional biases, but questions remain about its efficacy and there may be new variants yet to explore. The current study tested effects of a novel version of ABM, predictive ABM (predABM), using visually neutral cues predicting the locations of future threatening and neutral stimuli that had a chance of appearing after a delay. Such effects could also help understand anticipatory attentional biases measured using cued Visual Probe Tasks. 102 participants completed the experiment online. We tested whether training Towards Threat versus Away from Threat contingencies on the predABM would cause subsequent attentional biases towards versus away from threat versus neutral stimuli, respectively. Participants were randomly assigned and compared on attentional bias measured via a post-training Dot-Probe task. A significant difference was found between the attentional bias in the Towards Threat versus Away from Threat group. The training contingencies induced effects on bias in the expected direction, although the bias in each group separately did not reach significance. Stronger effects may require multiple training sessions. Nevertheless, the primary test confirmed the hypothesis, showing that the predABM is a potentially interesting variant of ABM. Theoretically, the results show that automatization may involve the process of selecting the outcome of a cognitive response, rather than a simple stimulus-response association. Training based on contingencies involving predicted stimuli affect subsequent attentional measures and could be of interest in future clinical studies.
Real-life shooting decisions typically occur under acute threat and require fast switching between vigilant situational assessment and immediate fight-or-flight actions. Recent studies suggested that freezing facilitates action preparation and decision-making but the neurocognitive mechanisms remain unclear. We applied functional magnetic resonance imaging, posturographic and autonomic measurements while participants performed a shooting task under threat of shock. Two independent studies, in unselected civilians (N = 22) and police recruits (N = 54), revealed that preparation for shooting decisions under threat is associated with postural freezing, bradycardia, midbrain activity (including the periaqueductal gray-PAG) and PAG-amygdala connectivity. Crucially, stronger activity in the midbrain/PAG during this preparatory stage of freezing predicted faster subsequent accurate shooting. Finally, the switch from preparation to active shooting was associated with tachycardia, perigenual anterior cingulate cortex (pgACC) activity and pgACC-amygdala connectivity. These findings suggest that threat-anticipatory midbrain activity centred around the PAG supports decision-making by facilitating action preparation and highlight the role of the pgACC when switching from preparation to action. These results translate animal models of the neural switch from freeze-to-action. In addition, they reveal a core neural circuit for shooting performance under threat and provide empirical evidence for the role of defensive reactions such as freezing in subsequent action decision-making.
Visual Probe Tasks (VPTs) have been extensively used to measure spatial attentional biases, but as usually analysed, VPTs do not consider trial-to-trial carryover effects of probe location: Does responding to a probe on, e.g., the location of a threat cue affect the bias on the subsequent trial? The aim of the current study was to confirm whether this kind of carryover exists, using a novel task version, the diagonalized VPT, designed to focus on such trial-to-trial interactions. Two versions of the task were performed by a sample of college students. In one version cues were coloured squares; in the other, cues were threat-related and neutral images. Both versions included partially random positive or negative response feedback and varying Cue-Probe Intervals (200 or 600 ms). Carryover effects were found in both versions. Responding to a probe at the location of a cue of a given colour induced an attentional bias on the subsequent trial in the direction of that colour. Responding to a threat-related cue induced an attentional bias towards threat on the subsequent trial. The results provide evidence that trial-to-trial carryover effects on spatial attentional bias indeed exist. A methodological implication is that previous probe location could be considered in analyses or re-analyses of spatial visual attention tasks.
Thomas Edward Gladwin
added a research item
The ability to control action is crucial for adaptive responding, but may be compromised in situations involving strong emotions (e.g., threat) or when people are deprived of resources (e.g., sleep). As compromised action control can have large consequences in threatening situations, for example when police officers face a potentially armed suspect, we experimentally investigated how acute threat and partial sleep deprivation affect the ability to control impulsive responses, in 52 healthy young adults performing a simulated shooting task. The results showed that acute threat increased the tendency to act quickly (i.e., reduced response times; b = 9.46, SE = 2.90, 95% CI [3.49, 15.29], p = .001) and impaired response inhibition (i.e., increased stop signal reaction times; b = −4.91, SE = 2.31, 95% CI [−9.47, −0.44], p = .035). In addition, 3 nights of partial sleep deprivation (5 hr [ n = 28] vs. 8 hr [ n = 24] of sleep), led to a significant decrease in overall response accuracy ( b = −0.22, SE = 0.09, 95% CI [−0.40, −0.05], p = .025). Contrary to expectations, our results did not show increased threat sensitivity in sleep-deprived individuals (all p > .13). Nevertheless, they may have important implications for professionals who are required to maintain behavioral control under high levels of threat and who experience disturbed sleep due to for example, shift work, as both factors negatively affected performance.
Thomas Edward Gladwin
added a research item
Dot‐probe or visual probe tasks (VPTs) are used extensively to measure attentional biases. A novel variant termed the cued VPT (cVPT) was developed to focus on the anticipatory component of attentional bias. This study aimed to establish an anticipatory attentional bias to threat using the cVPT and compare its split‐half reliability with a typical dot‐probe task. A total of 120 students performed the cVPT task and dot‐probe tasks. Essentially, the cVPT uses cues that predict the location of pictorial threatening stimuli, but on trials on which probe stimuli are presented the pictures do not appear. Hence, actual presentation of emotional stimuli did not affect responses. The reliability of the cVPT was higher at most cue–stimulus intervals and was .56 overall. A clear anticipatory attentional bias was found. In conclusion, the cVPT may be of methodological and theoretical interest. Using visually neutral predictive cues may remove sources of noise that negatively impact reliability. Predictive cues are able to bias response selection, suggesting a role of predicted outcomes in automatic processes.
Thomas Edward Gladwin
added a research item
Dot-Probe or Visual Probe Tasks (VPTs) are used extensively to measure attentional biases. A novel variant termed the cued VPT (cVPT) was developed to focus on the anticipatory component of attentional bias. The current study aimed to establish an anticipatory attentional bias to threat using the cVPT and compare its split-half reliability with a typical Dot-Probe task. 120 students performed the cVPT task and Dot-Probe tasks. Essentially, the cVPT uses cues that predict the location of pictorial threatening stimuli, but on trials on which probe stimuli are presented the pictures do not appear. Hence, actual presentation of emotional stimuli did not affect responses. The reliability of the cVPT was higher at most Cue-Stimulus Intervals, and was .56 overall. A clear anticipatory attentional bias was found. In conclusion, the cVPT may be of methodological and theoretical interest. Using visually neutral predictive cues may remove sources of noise that negatively impact reliability. Predictive cues are able to bias response selection, suggesting a role of predicted outcomes in automatic processes.
Thomas Edward Gladwin
added a research item
Emotionally salient stimuli have the ability to disrupt cognitive processing. This kind of disruption involves effects on working memory and may be related to mental health problems. To explore the nature of such emotional interference on working memory, a Virtual Attack Emotional Sternberg Task (VAEST) was used. Neutral faces were presented as distractors and warning signals, which were sometimes followed by a virtual attack, created by having the neutral face turn angry while the image was enlarged. The attack was hypothesized to have one of two effects: to disrupt cognitive processing and thereby increase interference effects, or to terminate a state of freezing and thereby reduce interference effects. The task was successfully completed online by a sample of 59 students. Results clearly show that the virtual attack caused a reduction of interference relative to no-attack trials. The apparent cognitive disruption caused by emotional distractors may thus reflect freezing, which can be reversed by a freeze-terminating stimulus.
Thomas Edward Gladwin
added 6 research items
Objective: PTSD is related to attentional biases, which are commonly measured using the Dot-Probe Task. Recent research has shown that trial-to-trial variability may contain important information in such tasks. The current study aimed to determine whether trial-to-trial carry-over effects in this task are related to PTSD symptoms. Method: Dot-Probe Tasks with attack-related scenes and angry faces were performed by two student samples. Interactions were tested with subclinical PTSD symptoms measured using the Trauma Screening Questionnaire. Results: On the Scenes task, error rates increased after the probe had been presented on threat versus neutral cue locations. This effect increased with trauma symptoms. On the Faces task, symptoms were related to carry-over effects on missed responses, which increased following probe-on-threat trials for current-probe-on-neutral trials only, and shifted from increasing to decreasing error rates over cue-stimulus interval. Conclusion: The results showed an overall carry-over effect for attack scenes. Relationships with PTSD were found for both tasks. The precise relationships differed, suggesting either a general disruptive effect of attending or responding to threat, or a more cue-specific and time-dependent attend-threat association. Carry-over effects in the Dot-Probe Task may provide an interesting direction of study of abnormal activation of threat-focused states or attention-threat binding in PTSD symptoms and other disorders.
Anger and aggression are common mental health problems after military deployment. Anger and aggression have been associated with abnormalities in subcortical and cortical levels of the brain and their connectivity. Here, we tested brain activation during the processing of emotional stimuli in military veterans with and without anger and aggression problems. Thirty military veterans with anger and aggression problems and 29 veterans without a psychiatric diagnosis (all males) participated in this study. During an fMRI scan 32 negative, 32 positive and 32 neutral pictures from the International Affective Picture System were presented in intermixed order. The Aggression group showed heightened activity in brain areas including the supplementary motor area, the cingulum and the parietal cortex, in response to stimuli, regardless of category. Furthermore, the Aggression group showed stronger connectivity between the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) and the amygdala during the viewing of negative stimuli, and weaker connectivity between dACC and medial prefrontal cortex during the viewing of positive stimuli. Veterans with anger and aggression problems showed enhanced brain response to all stimuli during the task, irrespective of valence and they rated the pictures more likely as negative. We take this to indicate enhanced preparation for action and attention to the presentation of stimuli that could prove to be threatening. Further, group differences in functional connectivity involving the dACC reveal abnormal processing of stimuli with negative and positive valence. In sum, the results point towards a bias towards an enhanced sensitivity to perceived or potential threat in aggression.
Thomas Edward Gladwin
added a project goal
Explore the role of threat-related processing in aggression and mental health.