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PLoS One. 2013 Apr 30;8(4):e62501. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0062501. Print 2013.

Learning to attend to threat accelerates and enhances memory consolidation.

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  • 1School of Psychological Sciences, Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv, Israel. abend@tau.ac.il


Practice on a procedural task involves within-session learning and between-session consolidation of learning, with the latter requiring a minimum of about four hours to evolve due to involvement of slower cellular processes. Learning to attend to threats is vital for survival and thus may involve faster memory consolidation than simple procedural learning. Here, we tested whether attention to threat modulates the time-course and magnitude of learning and memory consolidation effects associated with skill practice. All participants (N = 90) practiced in two sessions on a dot-probe task featuring pairs of neutral and angry faces followed by target probes which were to be discriminated as rapidly as possible. In the attend-threat training condition, targets always appeared at the angry face location, forming an association between threat and target location; target location was unrelated to valence in a control training condition. Within each attention training condition, duration of the between-session rest interval was varied to establish the time-course for emergence of consolidation effects. During the first practice session, we observed robust improvement in task performance (online, within-session gains), followed by saturation of learning. Both training conditions exhibited similar overall learning capacities, but performance in the attend-threat condition was characterized by a faster learning rate relative to control. Consistent with the memory consolidation hypothesis, between-session performance gains (delayed gains) were observed only following a rest interval. However, rest intervals of 1 and 24 hours yielded similar delayed gains, suggesting accelerated consolidation processes. Moreover, attend-threat training resulted in greater delayed gains compared to the control condition. Auxiliary analyses revealed that enhanced performance was retained over several months, and that training to attend to neutral faces resulted in effects similar to control. These results provide a novel demonstration of how attention to threat can accelerate and enhance memory consolidation effects associated with skill acquisition.

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