Animals need to cope with abundant sensory information, and one strategy is to selectively direct attention to only the most relevant part of the environment. Although the cortical networks of selective attention have been studied extensively, its underlying neurotransmitter systems, especially the role of the inhibitory neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), remain less well understood. Increased GABAA receptor activity because of administration of benzodiazepines such as lorazepam is known to slow reactions in cognitive tasks. However, there is limited knowledge about GABAergic involvement in selective attention. Particularly, it is unknown whether increased GABAA receptor activity slows the build-up of selectivity or generally widens attentional focus. To address this question, participants (n = 29) received 1 mg lorazepam and placebo (within-subjects, double-blind) and performed an extended version of the flanker task. The spatial distribution of selective attention was studied by systematically manipulating number and position of incongruent flankers; the temporal build-up was characterized using delta plots. An online task version was presented to an independent, unmedicated sample (n = 25) to verify task effects. Under placebo and in the unmedicated sample, only the number of incongruent flankers, but not their position, influenced RTs. Incongruent flankers impaired RTs more strongly under lorazepam than placebo, especially when adjacent to the target. Delta plot analyses of RT showed that this effect persisted even when participants reacted slowly, indicating that lorazepam-induced impairments in selective attention do not result from simply slowed down build-up of selectivity. Instead, our data indicate that increased GABAA receptor activity widens the attentional focus.

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