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Sustained Attention as Measured by Reaction Time Variability Is a Strong Modulator for the P600, but Not the N400
Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience (2022) 34 (12): 2297–2310.
Published: 01 November 2022
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The functional significance of the two prominent language-related ERP components N400 and P600 is still under debate. It has recently been suggested that one important dimension along which the two vary is in terms of automaticity versus attentional control, with N400 amplitudes reflecting more automatic and P600 amplitudes reflecting more controlled aspects of sentence comprehension. The availability of executive resources necessary for controlled processes depends on sustained attention, which fluctuates over time. Here, we thus tested whether P600 and N400 amplitudes depend on the level of sustained attention. We reanalyzed EEG and behavioral data from a sentence processing task by Sassenhagen and Bornkessel-Schlesewsky [The P600 as a correlate of ventral attention network reorientation. Cortex , 66 , A3–A20, 2015], which included sentences with morphosyntactic and semantic violations. Participants read sentences phrase by phrase and indicated whether a sentence contained any type of anomaly as soon as they had the relevant information. To quantify the varying degrees of sustained attention, we extracted a moving reaction time coefficient of variation over the entire course of the task. We found that the P600 amplitude was significantly larger during periods of low reaction time variability (high sustained attention) than in periods of high reaction time variability (low sustained attention). In contrast, the amplitude of the N400 was not affected by reaction time variability. These results thus suggest that the P600 component is sensitive to sustained attention whereas the N400 component is not, which provides independent evidence for accounts suggesting that P600 amplitudes reflect more controlled and N400 amplitudes reflect more automatic aspects of sentence comprehension.
Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience (2020) 32 (12): 2226–2240.
Published: 01 December 2020
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Stressful events affect mnemonic processing, in particular for emotionally arousing events. Previous research on the mechanisms underlying stress effects on human memory focused on stress-induced changes in the neural activity elicited by a stimulus. We tested an alternative mechanism and hypothesized that stress may already alter the neural context for successful memory formation, reflected in the neural activity preceding a stimulus. Therefore, 69 participants underwent a stress or control procedure before encoding neutral and negative pictures. During encoding, we recorded high-density EEG and analyzed—based on multivariate searchlight analyses—oscillatory activity and cross-frequency coupling patterns before stimulus onset that were predictive of memory tested 24 hr later. Prestimulus theta predicted subsequent memory in controls but not in stressed participants. Instead, prestimulus gamma predicted successful memory formation after stress, specifically for emotional material. Likewise, stress altered the patterns of prestimulus theta–beta and theta–gamma phase–amplitude coupling predictive of subsequent memory, again depending on the emotionality of the presented material. Our data suggest that stress changes the neural context for building new memories, tuning this neural context specifically to the encoding of emotionally salient events. These findings point to a yet unknown mechanism through which stressful events may change (emotional) memory formation.
Stress Sensitizes the Brain: Increased Processing of Unpleasant Pictures after Exposure to Acute Stress
Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience (2012) 24 (7): 1511–1518.
Published: 01 July 2012
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A key component of acute stress is a surge in vigilance that enables a prioritized processing of highly salient information to promote the organism's survival. In this study, we investigated the neural effects of acute stress on emotional picture processing. ERPs were measured during a deep encoding task, in which 40 male participants categorized 50 unpleasant and 50 neutral pictures according to arousal and valence. Before picture encoding, participants were subjected either to the Socially Evaluated Cold Pressor Test (SECPT) or to a warm water control procedure. The exposure to the SECPT resulted in increased subjective and autonomic (heart rate and blood pressure) stress responses relative to the control condition. Viewing of unpleasant relative to neutral pictures evoked enhanced late positive potentials (LPPs) over centro-parietal scalp sites around 400 msec after picture onset. Prior exposure to acute stress selectively increased the LPPs for unpleasant pictures. Moreover, the LPP magnitude for unpleasant pictures following the SECPT was positively associated with incidental free recall performance 24 hr later. The present results suggest that acute stress sensitizes the brain for increased processing of cues in the environment, particularly priming the processing of unpleasant cues. This increased processing is related to later long-term memory performance.