The effects of social stress and cortisol responses on the preconscious selective attention to social threat

Section Clinical and Health Psychology, University of Leiden, PO Box 9555, 2300 RB Leiden, The Netherlands.
Biological Psychology (Impact Factor: 3.4). 05/2007; 75(1):1-7. DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2006.09.002
Source: PubMed
The purpose of the present study was to investigate the effects of social stress and stress-induced cortisol on the preconscious selective attention to social threat. Twenty healthy participants were administered a masked emotional Stroop task (comparing color-naming latencies for angry, neutral and happy faces) in conditions of rest and social stress. Stress was induced by means of the Trier social stress test. Based on the stress-induced increase in cortisol levels, participants were allocated post hoc (median-split) to a high and low responders group. In contrast to low responders, high responders showed a negative or avoidant attentional bias to threat (i.e. shorter latencies for angry than neutral faces) in the rest condition. Most importantly, although low responders became avoidant, the high responders became vigilant to the angry faces after stress induction. There were no such effects for happy faces. Our findings are in line with previous studies in both animals and humans, that associate high glucocorticoid stress-responsiveness with diminished avoidance and prolonged freezing reactions during stress.
    • "The present study and that by Roelofs et al. (2007), which also employed a facial stimulus, generated a similar result. Thus, the present result suggests that stress-induced cortisol equally impacts attentional bias toward a facial and a non-facial stimulus, which is consistent with the meta-analytic study that reported no difference in effect size between a facial and a non-facial stimulus on attentional bias in depression (Peckham et al. 2010). "
    [Show abstract] [Hide abstract] ABSTRACT: Cortisol induces attentional bias toward a negative stimulus and impaired attentional function. Depressed individuals have high levels of cortisol, and exhibit an attentional bias toward a depression-related stimulus and impaired processing speed and executive attention, which are components of attentional function. Therefore, the study tested the hypotheses that an acute increase in cortisol in response to a stressor is associated with attentional bias toward a depression-related stimulus and impaired processing speed and executive attention. Thirty-six participants were administered the dot-probe task for the measurement of attentional bias toward a depression-related stimulus and the Trail Making Test A and B for the measurement of processing speed and executive attention before and after a mental arithmetic task. It was revealed that attentional bias toward a depression-related stimulus following the stressor was observed only among the responders (i.e., participants with cortisol elevation in response to a stressor). On the other hand, no differences in the performance of processing speed and executive attention were noted between the responders and non-responders. The results indicate that acutely elevated cortisol is related to attentional bias, but is not related to processing speed and executive attention. The results have an implication for the etiology of depression.
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    • "This finding is consistent with a view that elevated levels of HPA axis activity facilitate the selection of aggressive responses and/or the enactment of aggressive strategies. Such effects may take place through both emotional pathways, such as the increase of anger, and through cognitive pathways as outlined in social information processing theories (Roelofs et al., 2007). The lack of a link between cortisol reactivity to couple conflict discussion and aggression was surprising, but may be due to the non-independence of baseline and reactivity measures. "
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    • "It is now well-established that attentional biases are present in individuals diagnosed with a range of anxiety disorders (Bar-Haim et al., 2007) as indexed by heightened and sustained vigilance for visual stimuli conveying threat (Mogg and Bradley, 2002). Attentional biases have also been associated with heightened HPA-axis activity (Ellenbogen et al., 2002; Roelofs et al., 2007) providing a basis for cognitive-biological accounts of mood disorders (Beck, 2008). Furthermore, a genetic mechanism for attentional biases has emerged through its association with variations in the serotonin transporter gene (Perez-Edgar et al., 2010). "
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