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An examination of neural indicators of biased attention: The influence of worry on fear learning

An examination of neural indicators of biased attention: The influence of worry on fear learning

Evan White


Worry has been shown to be a transdiagnostic vulnerability and maintenance factor for mood and anxiety disorders. Theoretical models suggest worry impairs adaptive processing of emotional stimuli. One study found that worriers display increased processing of neutral stimuli as indexed by the late positive potential (LPP) ERP component, suggesting worry may impair distinction of threat and safety stimuli. However, the mechanisms of worry’s influence on biased processing are yet unclear. The goal of the current study was to document the impact of worry on processing of threat and neutral images using the LPP during learning and extinction phases of a fear conditioning task.

Fifty-six undergraduates completed three blocks of an emotional S1-S2 conditioning task in which S1 indicated the valence of a subsequent image. Block 1 contained only neutral images, block 2 contained both emotional and neutral images, and block 3 consisted of only neutral images. This design allowed us to evaluate fear learning of the emotional stimulus in block 2, and extinction of that response in block 3. EEG data were collected to index the LPP, a neural indicator of attention allocation to image processing.

Results indicated significant main effects for block [F(2, 54)= 6.24, p= .003, η2= .11] and stimulus [F(1, 54)= 9.64, p= .003, η2= .15], which were qualified by a significant two-way interaction (block x stimulus) [F(2, 54)= 18.2, p

Results of this study suggest that fear learning and extinction significantly influences responding to threat and safety images; this effect seems to be different for worriers and low worriers. Specifically, worriers displayed increased processing of neutral images, suggesting they devote similar attentional resources to threat and neutral images. These results indicate that worry may play a crucial role in maladaptive responding to threatening imagery during fear learning and may indicate mechanisms of the development of biased information processing.