Modulating the processing of emotional stimuli by cognitive demand

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Abstract

Emotional processing is influenced by cognitive processes and vice versa, indicating a profound interaction of these domains. The investigation of the neural mechanisms underlying this interaction is not only highly relevant for understanding the organization of human brain function. Rather, it may also help in understanding dysregulated emotions in affective disorders and in elucidating the neurobiology of cognitive behavioural therapy (e.g. in borderline personality disorder), which aims at modulating dysfunctional emotion processes by cognitive techniques, such as restructuring. In the majority of earlier studies investigating the interaction of emotions and cognition, the main focus has been on the investigation of the effects of emotional stimuli or, more general, emotional processing, e.g. instituted by emotional material that needed to be processed, on cognitive performance and neural activation patterns. Here we pursued the opposite approach and investigated the modulation of implicit processing of emotional stimuli by cognitive demands using an event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging––study on a motor short-term memory paradigm with emotional interferences. Subjects were visually presented a finger-sequence consisting either of four (easy condition) or six (difficult condition) items, which they had to memorize. After a short pause positive, negative or neutral International affective picture system pictures or a green dot (as control condition) were presented. Subjects were instructed to reproduce the memorized sequence manually as soon as the picture disappeared. Analysis showed that with increasing cognitive demand (long relative to short sequences), neural responses to emotional pictures were significantly reduced in amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex. In contrast, the more difficult task evoked stronger activation in a widespread frontoparietal network. As stimuli were task-relevant go-cues and hence had to be processed perceptually, we would interpret this as a specific attenuation of affective responses by concurrent cognitive processing––potentially reflecting a relocation of resources mediated by the frontoparietal network.

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