Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Adding Fear to Conflict: A General Purpose Cognitive Control Network Is Modulated by Trait Anxiety

Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Adding Fear to Conflict: A General Purpose Cognitive Control Network Is Modulated by Trait Anxiety

Article excerpt

Studies of cognitive control show that the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex are involved in the detection and resolution of cognitive conflict. However, the neural and behavioral mechanisms underlying emotional interference effects are less consistent. We used fMRI during emotional and nonemotional versions of a facial Stroop task to investigate the effects of emotional stimuli on cognitive control. In the full group there was limited evidence that different prefrontal circuits manage conflict arising from emotional and nonemotional distractors. However, individual differences in trait anxiety affected both behavioral performance and neural activity during the emotional task. Relative to low-anxiety (LA) subjects, high-anxiety (HA) subjects showed greater amygdala activity to task-relevant emotional information and impaired performance and greater conflict-related activity in the dACC when emotional content was task-irrelevant. Only LA subjects activated rostral ACC during the emotional task. This is consistent with cognitive models of individual differences that hypothesize deficient control of task-irrelevant emotional information in HA subjects. Additional behavioral and fMRI results from this study may be downloaded from http://cabn.psychonomic-journals .org/content/supplemental.

Cognitive control forms a foundation for higher cognitive functions such as attention, memory retrieval, and language production and comprehension. Cognitive control allows us to coordinate or direct lower level or more automatic processes to ensure that our resulting actions will be in line with our goals and to successfully perform difficult tasks, even in the face of distraction. While the behavioral and neural mechanisms of cognitive control are well characterized, a growing body of literature regarding the influence of emotional states and emotional stimuli on performance of goal-related behaviors and neural activity has yielded discrepant results.

Conflict and Control in Nonemotional Tasks

One particular function of cognitive control is the selection of a correct response from competing responses. In the color-word Stroop task, subjects are required to name the color in which a color word is displayed (Stroop, 1935). On congruent trials, the color and meaning of the word are the same (e.g., the word blue written in blue). Responses on these trials are generally quick and accurate. On incongruent trials, the color and the meaning of the word are not the same (e.g., the word blue written in red). Performance is slower and less accurate on incongruent trials because of the presence of conflict. During these types of trials, cognitive control is needed for the subject to respond with the correct color-naming response ("red") as opposed to the incorrect and conflicting automatic word-reading response ("blue").

Behavioral studies have shown that responses to incongruent trials preceded by another incongruent trial (iI trials) are considerably faster and more accurate than responses to incongruent trials preceded by a congruent trial (cI trials; Gratton, Coles, & Donchin, 1992). Performance on iI trials is improved because of a strengthening of selection for action or control. On cI trials, performance is poor, because control is not yet implemented and levels of conflict are high.

In an event-related fMRI study of the color-word Stroop task, Kerns et al. (2004) found that a fast iI trial was associated with high dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) activity and high dorsol anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) activity on the preceding incongruent (cI) trial. This study helped establish the role of the dACC as the conflict monitor and the role of a separate and distinct area, the DLPFC, in subsequent cognitive control. These results have since been replicated in several neuroimaging studies (Egner, Etkin, Gale, & Hirsch, 2008; Egner & Hirsch, 2005; Kerns, 2006), and Egner and Hirsch (2005) later showed that DLPFC improves task performance by enhancing processing of the task-relevant stimulus dimension. …

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