Attention mechanisms during predictable and unpredictable threat — A steady-state visual evoked potential approach

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Abstract

Fear is elicited by imminent threat and leads to phasic fear responses with selective attention, whereas anxiety is characterized by a sustained state of heightened vigilance due to uncertain danger. In the present study, we investigated attention mechanisms in fear and anxiety by adapting the NPU-threat test to measure steady-state visual evoked potentials (ssVEPs). We investigated ssVEPs across no aversive events (N), predictable aversive events (P), and unpredictable aversive events (U), signaled by four-object arrays (30 s). In addition, central cues were presented during all conditions but predictably signaled imminent threat only during the P condition. Importantly, cues and context events were flickered at different frequencies (15 Hz vs. 20 Hz) in order to disentangle respective electrocortical responses. The onset of the context elicited larger electrocortical responses for U compared to P context. Conversely, P cues elicited larger electrocortical responses compared to N cues. Interestingly, during the presence of the P cue, visuocortical processing of the concurrent context was also enhanced. The results support the notion of enhanced initial hypervigilance to unpredictable compared to predictable threat contexts, while predictable cues show electrocortical enhancement of the cues themselves but additionally a boost of context processing.

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Wieser, M. J., Reicherts, P., Juravle, G., & von Leupoldt, A. (2016). Attention mechanisms during predictable and unpredictable threat — A steady-state visual evoked potential approach. NeuroImage, 139, 167–175. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2016.06.026

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