Stress shifts brain activation towards ventral ‘affective’ areas during emotional distraction


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Abstract

Acute stress has been shown to impair working memory (WM), and to decrease prefrontal activation during WM in healthy humans. Stress also enhances amygdala responses towards emotional stimuli. Stress might thus be specifically detrimental to WM when one is distracted by emotional stimuli. Usually, emotional stimuli presented as distracters in a WM task slow down performance, while evoking more activation in ventral ‘affective’ brain areas, and a relative deactivation in dorsal ‘executive’ areas. We hypothesized that after acute social stress, this reciprocal dorsal–ventral pattern would be shifted towards greater increase of ventral ‘affective’ activation during emotional distraction, while impairing WM performance. To investigate this, 34 healthy men, randomly assigned to a social stress or control condition, performed a Sternberg WM task with emotional and neutral distracters inside an MRI scanner. Results showed that WM performance after stress tended to be slower during emotional distraction. Brain activations during emotional distraction was enhanced in ventral affective areas, while dorsal executive areas tended to show less deactivation after stress. These results suggest that acute stress shifts priority towards processing of emotionally significant stimuli, at the cost of WM performance.

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