Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Probing the Attentional Control Theory in Social Anxiety: An Emotional Saccade Task

Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Probing the Attentional Control Theory in Social Anxiety: An Emotional Saccade Task

Article excerpt

Volitional attentional control has been found to rely on prefrontal neuronal circuits. According to the attentional control theory of anxiety, impairment in the volitional control of attention is a prominent feature in anxiety disorders. The present study investigated this assumption in socially anxious individuals using an emotional saccade task with facial expressions (happy, angry, fearful, sad, neutral). The gaze behavior of participants was recorded during the emotional saccade task, in which participants performed either pro- or antisaccades in response to peripherally presented facial expressions. The results show that socially anxious persons have difficulties in inhibiting themselves to reflexively attend to facial expressions: They made more erratic prosaccades to all facial expressions when an antisaccade was required. Thus, these findings indicate impaired attentional control in social anxiety. Overall, the present study shows a deficit of socially anxious individuals in attentional control-for example, in inhibiting the reflexive orienting to neutral as well as to emotional facial expressions. This result may be due to a dysfunction in the prefrontal areas being involved in attentional control.

In anxiety disorders, there is a great deal of research in support of an association between anxiety and increased attentional bias toward threatening stimuli (e.g., angry faces in social anxiety)-a phenomenon that is called hypervigilance for threat (for an extensive review, see Bar-Haim, Lamy, Pergamin, Bakermans-Kranenburg, & van Ijzendoorn, 2007). This attentional bias might be due to a lack of voluntary control over attention allocation. Accordingly, anxious persons might be impaired to inhibit the reflexive orienting to threatening stimuli by volition. In recent neuroimaging studies, it has been shown that anxiety selectively facilitates the early processing of threat stimuli and enhances distractibility toward task- irrelevant stimuli. This bias in threat processing is associated with enhanced amygdala activity and reduced activity in prefrontal cortical areas (especially the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex [DLPFC] and the ventral lateral prefrontal cortex [VLPFC]), which are involved in top-down regulation of attention (Bishop, 2007; Bishop, Duncan, Brett, & Lawrence, 2004). According to Bishop, this reduced recruitment of prefrontal areas indicates a diminished ability in highly anxious individuals to recruit these areas to augment attentional control.

From a cognitive point of view, M. W. Eysenck and colleagues (M. W. Eysenck, Derakshan, Santos, & Calvo, 2007) put forward the attentional control theory of anxiety. According to this theory, it is assumed that anxious individuals show impairments in the efficient functioning of the goal-directed attentional system, which leads to an increased extent to which processing is influenced by the stimulus-driven attentional system. This assumption is made on the basis of the distinction between two attentional systems and the disruption of the balance between these two systems: the goal-oriented (involved in top-down control, influenced by current goals) and the stimulus-driven (involved in bottom-up control, influenced by salience of environmental input) systems. The former system is similar and functionally equivalent to the anterior attentional system that was proposed by Posner and Petersen (1990), which is assumed to be located in the prefrontal cortex. The latter is similar to the posterior attentional system that was also proposed by Posner and Petersen, which is located in temporo-parietal and ventral frontal areas of the brain. These two systems are generally thought to interact in their functioning (Pashler, Johnston, & Ruthruff, 2001), whereas in anxiety disorders it is assumed that there is an imbalance that is due to an increase of the influence of stimulus-driven over goal-directed processes. Such an imbalance reduces inhibitory control of attention toward task-irrelevant stimuli, especially in a situation including salient or conspicuous distractors. …

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