Enhanced Processing of Threat Stimuli under Limited Attentional Resources

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The ability to process stimuli that convey potential threat, under conditions of limited attentional resources, confers adaptive advantages. This study examined the neurobiology underpinnings of this capacity. Employing an attentional blink paradigm, in conjunction with functional magnetic resonance imaging, we manipulated the salience of the second of 2 face target stimuli (T2), by varying emotionality. Behaviorally, fearful T2 faces were identified significantly more than neutral faces. Activity in fusiform face area increased with correct identification of T2 faces. Enhanced activity in rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC) accounted for the benefit in detection of fearful stimuli reflected in a significant interaction between target valence and correct identification. Thus, under conditions of limited attention resources activation in rACC correlated with enhanced processing of emotional stimuli. We suggest that these data support a model in which a prefrontal “gate” mechanism controls conscious access of emotional information under conditions of limited attentional resources.

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