Stress shifts brain activation towards ventral ‘affective’ areas during emotional distraction

Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition, Postzone C2-S, PO Box 9600, 2300 RC Leiden, The Netherlands.
Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (Impact Factor: 7.37). 04/2011; 7(4):403-12. DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsr024
Source: PubMed


Acute stress has been shown to impair working memory (WM), and to decrease prefrontal activation during WM in healthy humans. Stress also enhances amygdala responses towards emotional stimuli. Stress might thus be specifically detrimental to WM when one is distracted by emotional stimuli. Usually, emotional stimuli presented as distracters in a WM task slow down performance, while evoking more activation in ventral 'affective' brain areas, and a relative deactivation in dorsal 'executive' areas. We hypothesized that after acute social stress, this reciprocal dorsal-ventral pattern would be shifted towards greater increase of ventral 'affective' activation during emotional distraction, while impairing WM performance. To investigate this, 34 healthy men, randomly assigned to a social stress or control condition, performed a Sternberg WM task with emotional and neutral distracters inside an MRI scanner. Results showed that WM performance after stress tended to be slower during emotional distraction. Brain activations during emotional distraction was enhanced in ventral affective areas, while dorsal executive areas tended to show less deactivation after stress. These results suggest that acute stress shifts priority towards processing of emotionally significant stimuli, at the cost of WM performance.

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Available from: Philip Spinhoven
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    • "Transiently, this is of no concern. However, chronic stress has been linked to a plethora of ailments, including lack of sleep, poor diet, impaired working memory, hypertension, heart disease, and diabetes (Drake et al., 2004; Kalimo et al., 2000; McEwen et al., 2010; Miller et al., 2011; Oei et al., 2012; Sapolsky 2004; Shoofs et al., 2008). When students have several exams in a short period of time, they could be accruing acute stress to the point of chronic stress, which in turn perpetuates itself through the conditions described above. "

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    • "Follow-up investigations (Denkova et al., 2010; Dolcos et al., 2008; Dolcos, Miller, Kragel, Jha, & McCarthy, 2007; Iordan, Dolcos, Denkova, et al., 2013) provided additional evidence that these patterns of neural activity are specific to emotional distraction, and further explored the specificity of this response to different types of distracters (reviewed in Iordan, Dolcos, & Dolcos, 2013). In addition, other investigations using similar (Anticevic et al., 2010; Diaz et al., 2011; Oei et al., 2012) or derived different tasks (Mitchell et al., 2008; Wang, McCarthy, Song, & Labar, 2005; Yamasaki, LaBar, & McCarthy, 2002) in healthy participants, and evidence from clinical research (Anticevic, Repovs, Corlett, & Barch, 2011; Morey et al., 2009) also support this ventro-dorsal dissociation in response to emotional distraction, hence highlighting the replicability and generalizability of this dissociation (Iordan et al, 2013). An important factor influencing the impairing effect of emotion is the capacity to engage coping mechanisms in order to resist emotional distraction. "
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