How acute stress may enhance subsequent memory for threat stimuli outside the focus of attention: DLPFC-amygdala decoupling

Neuroimage. 2018 May 1;171:311-322. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2018.01.010. Epub 2018 Jan 9.


Stress-related disorders, e.g., anxiety and depression, are characterized by decreased top-down control for distracting information, as well as a memory bias for threatening information. However, it is unclear how acute stress biases mnemonic encoding and leads to prioritized storage of threat-related information even if outside the focus of attention. In the current study, healthy adults (N = 53, all male) were randomly assigned to stress induction using the socially evaluated cold-pressor test (SECPT) or a control condition. Participants performed a task in which they were required to identify a target letter within a string of letters that were either identical to the target and thereby facilitating detection (low distractor load) or mixed with other letters to complicate the search (high load). Either a fearful or neutral face was presented on the background, outside the focus of attention. Twenty-four hours later, participants were asked to perform a surprise recognition memory test for those background faces. Stress induction resulted in increased cortisol and negative subjective mood ratings. Stress did not affect visual search performance, however, participants in the stress group showed stronger memory compared to the control group for fearful faces in the low attentional load condition. Critically, the stress induced memory bias was accompanied by decoupling between amygdala and DLFPC during encoding, which may represent a mechanism for decreased ability to filter task-irrelevant threatening background information. The current study provides a potential neural account for how stress can produce a negative memory bias for threatening information even if presented outside the focus of attention. Despite of an adaptive advantage for survival, such tendencies may ultimately also lead to generalized fear, a possibility requiring additional investigation.

Keywords: Amygdala; Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex; Functional connectivity; Memory; Psychophysiological interaction; Threat stimuli.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Amygdala / physiopathology*
  • Attention / physiology
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Neural Pathways / physiopathology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiopathology*
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*