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Brain Cogn. 2012 Apr;78(3):257-67. doi: 10.1016/j.bandc.2012.01.002. Epub 2012 Jan 29.

Anxiety, a benefit and detriment to cognition: behavioral and magnetoencephalographic evidence from a mixed-saccade task.

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Section on Neurobiology of Fear and Anxiety, National Institute of Mental Health, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD 20892, USA.


Anxiety is typically considered an impediment to cognition. We propose anxiety-related impairments in cognitive-behavioral performance are the consequences of enhanced stimulus-driven attention. Accordingly, reflexive, habitual behaviors that rely on stimulus-driven mechanisms should be facilitated in an anxious state, while novel, flexible behaviors that compete with the former should be impaired. To test these predictions, healthy adults (N=17) performed a mixed-saccade task, which pits habitual actions (pro-saccades) against atypical ones (anti-saccades), under anxiety-inducing threat of shock and safe conditions. Whole-head magnetoencephalography (MEG) captured oscillatory responses in the preparatory interval preceding target onset and saccade execution. Results showed threat-induced anxiety differentially impacted response times based on the type of saccade initiated, slowing anti-saccades but facilitating erroneous pro-saccades on anti-saccade trials. MEG source analyses revealed that successful suppression of reflexive pro-saccades and correct initiation of anti-saccades during threat was marked by increased theta power in right ventrolateral prefrontal cortical and midbrain regions (superior colliculi) implicated in stimulus-driven attention. Theta activity may delay stimulus-driven processes to enable generation of an anti-saccade. Moreover, compared to safety, threat reduced beta desynchronization in inferior parietal cortices during anti-saccade preparation but increased it during pro-saccade preparation. Differential effects in inferior parietal cortices indicate a greater readiness to execute anti-saccades during safety and to execute pro-saccades during threat. These findings suggest that, in an anxiety state, reduced cognitive-behavioral flexibility may stem from enhanced stimulus-driven attention, which may serve the adaptive function of optimizing threat detection.

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