Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Biases of Attention in Chronic Smokers: Men and Women Are Not Alike

Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Biases of Attention in Chronic Smokers: Men and Women Are Not Alike

Article excerpt

Published online: 29 April 2014

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2014

Abstract The activation of motivational systems by stimuli in the environment that are associated with rewarding experiences is able to trigger plastic changes in the brain, thereby altering the attentional priority of those stimuli. As a result, attentional deployment is often abnormal in addiction, with drug-related stimuli attracting attention automatically and gaining control over behavior. For example, smokers show attentional biases toward smoke-related cues, but the mechanisms underlying these effects and the nature of their link to addiction are still debated. Here, we investigated the influence of gender and individual factors on the temporal dynamics of attentional deployment toward smoke-related stimuli in young smokers. Crucially, we found a striking gender difference, with only males exhibiting a typical attentional bias for smoke-related items, and the bias revealed strong time dependency. Additionally, for both males and females, various personality traits and smoking habits predicted the direction and strength of the measured bias. Overall, these results unveil a crucial influence of several predictors-notably, gender-on the biases of attention toward smoke-related items in chronic smokers.

Keywords Attention . Motivation . Reward . Personality


Visual selective attention (VSA) is the cognitive function that supports goal-directed behavior by allowing privileged processing of relevant information, while concurrently suppressing analysis of irrelevant, and potentially distracting, visual input. VSA can be conceived of as the emerging property of selectivity in perception and action control whose goal is to preferentially encode the retinal input that is deemed more relevant for the individual given his or her current mental state, priorities, and goals (Chelazzi, Della Libera, Sani, & Santandrea, 2011; Desimone & Duncan, 1995). VSA can be promptly summoned by a conspicuous, unexpected, and suddenly appearing object because evolution has shaped our brains to be especially sensitive and immediately reactive to that sort of event (Theeuwes, 2010). However, VSA can also be instantiated in a dynamic fashion by multiple control signals, especially those related to the many forms of shortand long-term memory (Desimone, 1996), emotional processing (Vuilleumier & Huang, 2009), and motivational drive (Pessoa & Engelmann, 2010; Small et al., 2005).

In particular, fluctuations in stimulus relevance are strongly affected by motivation, which controls behavior by continuously setting goals toward the achievement of desirable, or rewarding, outcomes (e.g., Schacter, Gilbert, & Wegner, 2012). In a natural context, current motivational needs drive behavior by assigning a higher degree of desirability to the objects that are able to satisfy these needs, in a dynamic, everchanging fashion. One way to measure the impact of motivation on attentional deployment in the laboratory setting is to investigate how stimuli previously associated with varying reward values, or stimuli that are otherwise unequally gratifying, differ in their attentional priority. Studies have shown that stimuli with a high intrinsic motivational relevance are more strongly represented with respect to those that are less relevant, so that, for instance, images depicting tasty food engage enhanced perceptual and attentional processing in individuals when they are hungry, with respect to when they are satiated (e.g., Mohanty, Gitelman, Small, & Mesulam, 2008; Stockburger, Weike, Hamm, & Schupp, 2008), and pictures with erotic contents attract visuospatial attention as a function of gender and sexual preference (Jiang, Costello, Fang, Huang, & He, 2006).

Recent studies, coming in part from our laboratory, have also demonstrated that attentional deployment can be strongly affected by the controlled delivery of monetary rewards, leading to lasting (positive or negative) biases of attention in relation to visual stimuli that, in the past, have been either selected or filtered out with more rewarding outcomes (Della Libera & Chelazzi, 2006, 2009; Della Libera, Perlato, & Chelazzi, 2011; for a comprehensive review, see Chelazzi, Perlato, Santandrea, & Della Libera, 2013). …

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