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J Neurosci. 2011 Jan 19;31(3):1156-61. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3384-10.2011.

Stress potentiates early and attenuates late stages of visual processing.

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Department of Psychology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin 53706, USA.


Stress can fundamentally alter neural responses to incoming information. Recent research suggests that stress and anxiety shift the balance of attention away from a task-directed mode, governed by prefrontal cortex, to a sensory-vigilance mode, governed by the amygdala and other threat-sensitive regions. A key untested prediction of this framework is that stress exerts dissociable effects on different stages of information processing. This study exploited the temporal resolution afforded by event-related potentials to disentangle the impact of stress on vigilance, indexed by early perceptual activity, from its impact on task-directed cognition, indexed by later postperceptual activity in humans. Results indicated that threat of shock amplified stress, measured using retrospective ratings and concurrent facial electromyography. Stress also double-dissociated early sensory-specific processing from later task-directed processing of emotionally neutral stimuli: stress amplified N1 (184-236 ms) and attenuated P3 (316-488 ms) activity. This demonstrates that stress can have strikingly different consequences at different processing stages. Consistent with recent suggestions, stress amplified earlier extrastriate activity in a manner consistent with vigilance for threat (N1), but disrupted later activity associated with the evaluation of task-relevant information (P3). These results provide a novel basis for understanding how stress can modulate information processing in everyday life and stress-sensitive disorders.

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