The neural chronometry of threat-related attentional bias: Event-related potential (ERP) evidence for early and late stages of selective attentional processing

Int J Psychophysiol. 2019 Dec:146:20-42. doi: 10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2019.08.006. Epub 2019 Oct 9.


Rapid and accurate detection of threat is adaptive. Yet, threat-related attentional biases, including hypervigilance, avoidance, and attentional disengagement delays, may contribute to the etiology and maintenance of anxiety disorders. Behavioral measures of attentional bias generally indicate that threat demands more attentional resources; however, indices exploring differential allocation of attention using reaction time fail to clarify the time course by which attention is deployed under threatening circumstances in healthy and anxious populations. In this review, we conduct an interpretive synthesis of 28 attentional bias studies focusing on event-related potentials (ERPs) as a primary outcome to inform an ERP model of the neural chronometry of attentional bias in healthy and anxious populations. The model posits that both healthy and anxious populations display modulations of early ERP components, including the P1, N170, P2, and N2pc, in response to threatening and emotional stimuli, suggesting that both typical and abnormal patterns of attentional bias are characterized by enhanced allocation of attention to threat and emotion at earlier stages of processing. Compared to anxious populations, healthy populations more clearly demonstrate modulations of later components, such as the P3, indexing conscious and evaluative processing of threat and emotion and disengagement difficulties at later stages of processing. Findings from the interpretive synthesis, existing bias models, and extant neural literature on attentional systems are then integrated to inform a conceptual model of the processes and substrates underlying threat appraisal and resource allocation in healthy and anxious populations. To conclude, we discuss therapeutic interventions for attentional bias and future directions.

Keywords: Anxiety; Attention; Attention bias modification treatment; Event-related potentials; Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anxiety / physiopathology
  • Anxiety / psychology
  • Anxiety / therapy
  • Attentional Bias / physiology*
  • Brain / physiology
  • Electroencephalography / methods
  • Evoked Potentials / physiology*
  • Fear / physiology*
  • Fear / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Mindfulness / methods*
  • Nerve Net / physiology
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Time Factors