Psychological Medicine

Original Article

Biased emotional attention in post-traumatic stress disorder: a help as well as a hindrance?

M. VYTHILINGAMa1, K. S. BLAIRa1, D. McCAFFREYa1, M. SCARAMOZZAa1, M. JONESa1, M. NAKICa1, K. MONDILLOa1, K. HADDa1, O. BONNEa2, D. G. V. MITCHELLa3, D. S. PINEa1, D. S. CHARNEYa4 and R. J. R. BLAIRa1 c1

a1 Mood and Anxiety Program, National Institute of Mental Health, National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Human Services, Bethesda, MD, USA

a2 Department of Psychiatry, Hadassah-Hebrew-University Medical Center, Jerusalem, Israel

a3 Departments of Psychiatry and Anatomy & Cell Biology, University of Western Ontario, Canada

a4 Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York, NY, USA

ABSTRACT

Background 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.

Method 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.

Results 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.

Conclusions These findings document that hyper-responsiveness to threat but not to positive stimuli is specific for patients with PTSD.

(Online publication June 11 2007)

Correspondence

c1 Address for correspondence: Dr James Blair, Mood and Anxiety Program, National Institute of Mental Health, 15K North Drive, MSC 2670, Bethesda, MD 20892, USA. (Email: blairj@intra.nimh.nih.gov)

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