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This study aimed to determine whether patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) show difficulty in recruitment of the regions of the frontal and parietal cortex implicated in top-down attentional control in the presence and absence of emotional distracters.
Unmedicated individuals with PTSD (n = 14), and age-, IQ- and gender-matched individuals exposed to trauma (n = 15) and healthy controls (n = 19) were tested on the affective number Stroop task. In addition, blood oxygen level-dependent responses, as measured via functional magnetic resonance imaging, were recorded.
Patients with PTSD showed disrupted recruitment of lateral regions of the superior and inferior frontal cortex as well as the parietal cortex in the presence of negative distracters. Trauma-comparison individuals showed indications of a heightened ability to recruit fronto-parietal regions implicated in top-down attentional control across distracter conditions.
These results are consistent with suggestions that emotional responsiveness can interfere with the recruitment of regions implicated in top-down attentional control; the heightened emotional responding of patients with PTSD may lead to the heightened interference in the recruitment of these regions.
From a cognitive neuroscience perspective, the emotional attentional bias in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) could be conceptualized either as emotional hyper-responsiveness or as reduced priming of task-relevant representations due to dysfunction in ‘top-down’ regulatory systems. We investigated these possibilities both with respect to threatening and positive stimuli among traumatized individuals with and without PTSD.
Twenty-two patients with PTSD, 21 trauma controls and 20 non-traumatized healthy participants were evaluated on two tasks. For one of these tasks, the affective Stroop task (aST), the emotional stimuli act as distracters and interfere with task performance. For the other, the emotional lexical decision task (eLDT), emotional information facilitates task performance.
Compared to trauma controls and healthy participants, patients with PTSD showed increased interference for negative but not positive distracters on the aST and increased emotional facilitation for negative words on the eLDT.
These findings document that hyper-responsiveness to threat but not to positive stimuli is specific for patients with PTSD.
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