Positive reinforcement modulates fronto-limbic systems subserving emotional interference in adolescents

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Abstract

Fronto-limbic systems play an important role in supporting resistance to emotional distraction to promote goal-directed behavior. Despite evidence that alterations in the functioning of these systems are implicated in developmental trajectories of psychopathology, most studies have been conducted in adults. This study examined the functioning of fronto-limbic systems subserving emotional interference in adolescents and whether differential reinforcement of correct responding can modulate these neural systems in ways that could promote resistance to emotional distraction. Fourteen healthy adolescents (ages 9–15) completed an emotional delayed working memory task during fMRI with emotional distracters (none, neutral, negative) while positive reinforcement (i.e., monetary reward) was provided for correct responses under some conditions. Adolescents showed slightly reduced behavioral performance and greater activation in amygdala and prefrontal cortical regions (ventrolateral, ventromedial, dorsolateral) on correct trials with negative distracters compared to those with no or neutral distracters. Positive reinforcement yielded an overall improvement in accuracy and reaction times and counteracted the effects of negative distracters as evidenced by significant reductions in activation in key fronto-limbic regions. The present findings extend results on emotional interference from adults to adolescents and suggest that positive reinforcement could be used to potentially promote insulation from emotional distraction. A challenge for the future will be to build upon these findings for constructing reinforcement-based attention training programs that could be used to reduce emotional attention biases in anxious youth.

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