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Front Behav Neurosci. 2014 Oct 9;8:353. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2014.00353. eCollection 2014.

The influence of acute stress on attention mechanisms and its electrophysiological correlates.

Author information

1
Experimental Biological Psychology, Institute of Experimental Psychology, Heinrich-Heine-University Düsseldorf, Germany.
2
Biological Psychology, Institute of Experimental Psychology, Heinrich-Heine-University Düsseldorf, Germany.
3
Clinic for Psychiatry, Social Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, Hannover Medical School Hannover, Germany.
4
Analytical Chemistry, Leibniz Research Centre for Working Environment and Human Factors Dortmund, Germany.
5
Perceptual Cybernetics, Leibniz Research Centre for Working Environment and Human Factors Dortmund, Germany.

Abstract

FOR THE SELECTION OF RELEVANT INFORMATION OUT OF A CONTINUOUS STREAM OF INFORMATION, WHICH IS A COMMON DEFINITION OF ATTENTION, TWO CORE MECHANISMS ARE ASSUMED: a competition-based comparison of the neuronal activity in sensory areas and the top-down modulation of this competition by frontal executive control functions. Those control functions are thought to bias the processing of information toward the intended goals. Acute stress is thought to impair these frontal functions through the release of cortisol. In the present study, subjects had to detect a luminance change of a stimulus and ignore more salient but task irrelevant orientation changes. Before the execution of this task, subjects underwent a socially evaluated cold pressor test (SECPT) or a non-stressful control situation. The SECPT revealed reliable stress response with a significant increase of cortisol and alpha-amylase. Stressed subjects showed higher error rates than controls, particularly in conditions which require top-down control processing to bias the less salient target feature against the more salient and spatially separated distracter. By means of the EEG, subjects who got stressed showed a reduced allocation to the relevant luminance change apparent in a modulation of the N1pc. The following N2pc, which reflects a re-allocation of attentional resources, supports the error pattern. There was only an N2pc in conditions, which required to bias the less salient luminance change. Moreover, this N2pc was decreased as a consequence of the induced stress. These results allow the conclusion that acute stress impairs the intention-based attentional allocation and enhances the stimulus-driven selection, leading to a strong distractibility during attentional information selection.

KEYWORDS:

EEG/ERP; N1/N2pc; attention; competition; stress

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