NEURAL CHRONOMETRY OF VISUAL ATTENTION & THREAT PROCESSING
Haas, Sara A
Fox, Nathan A
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Most anxiety disorders in adults emerge during adolescence, and if left untreated, pediatric anxiety disorders predict adverse mental and physical health outcomes in adolescents and adults. While genetic heritability is a contributing risk factor, a heightened tendency to direct attention preferentially to threat represents one of the strongest information-processing correlates of anxiety; such an attention bias may shape both the development and maintenance of anxiety symptoms. Attentional performance differences have been observed on emotion cueing visual attention tasks as a function of both clinical and sub-clinical anxiety levels. Previous work in adults observed that for adults with higher anxiety symptoms, efficiency of visual search was degraded by threat-cueing faces. However, further work is required to clarify the emergence attentional biases in adolescents, to inform methods for early identification, intervention and treatment of individuals at risk for anxiety. The present study examined the impact of emotional priming on attention as a function of anxiety using a task in which emotional faces were used as primes for a visual search task. Event Related Potentials (ERP) (P1, N170 and N2pc) were recorded in concert with behavioral responses to address the chronometry and quality of attentional processing as a function of anxiety symptoms in adolescents, 12-17 years of age. Early P1 and N170 processing in the first few hundred milliseconds of viewing face primes, differed as a function of both anxiety and prime emotion. Moreover, these anxiety-related early processing differences related to subsequent behavior. Variability in the N2pc attention-related processing during visual search also varied as a function of anxiety and prime type, as well as affected subsequent behavior. This dissertation found both early and later occurring attentional processes have significant ramifications for individuals with higher anxiety scores, such that in addition to neural differences, high anxious individuals also display significant differences in behavior. While early and late neural processes varied in lower anxious individuals as a function of face prime type, relations with behavior were minimal in comparison. These findings are discussed as they relate to emotion processing, threat responsivity to facial stimuli, and applicability to pediatric and adult clinical anxiety.