This article is part of the Research Topic The neurobiology of emotion-cognition interactions

Review ARTICLE

Front. Hum. Neurosci., 17 May 2013 | doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00203

The impact of anxiety upon cognition: perspectives from human threat of shock studies

  • Section on the Neurobiology of Fear and Anxiety, National Institute of Mental Health, Bethesda, MD, USA

Anxiety disorders constitute a sizeable worldwide health burden with profound social and economic consequences. The symptoms are wide-ranging; from hyperarousal to difficulties with concentrating. This latter effect falls under the broad category of altered cognitive performance which is the focus of this review. Specifically, we examine the interaction between anxiety and cognition focusing on the translational threat of unpredictable shock paradigm; a method previously used to characterize emotional responses and defensive mechanisms that is now emerging as valuable tool for examining the interaction between anxiety and cognition. In particular, we compare the impact of threat of shock on cognition in humans to that of pathological anxiety disorders. We highlight that both threat of shock and anxiety disorders promote mechanisms associated with harm avoidance across multiple levels of cognition (from perception to attention to learning and executive function)—a “hot” cognitive function which can be both adaptive and maladaptive depending upon the circumstances. This mechanism comes at a cost to other functions such as working memory, but leaves some functions, such as planning, unperturbed. We also highlight a number of cognitive effects that differ across anxiety disorders and threat of shock. These discrepant effects are largely seen in “cold” cognitive functions involving control mechanisms and may reveal boundaries between adaptive (e.g., response to threat) and maladaptive (e.g., pathological) anxiety. We conclude by raising a number of unresolved questions regarding the role of anxiety in cognition that may provide fruitful avenues for future research.

Keywords: anxiety, cognition, threat of shock, anxiety disorders, perception, attention, learning and memory, executive function

Citation: Robinson OJ, Vytal K, Cornwell BR and Grillon C (2013) The impact of anxiety upon cognition: perspectives from human threat of shock studies. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 7:203. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2013.00203

Received: 14 December 2012; Accepted: 30 April 2013;
Published online: 17 May 2013.

Edited by:

Luiz Pessoa, University of Maryland, USA

Reviewed by:

Martin P. Paulus, University of California San Diego, USA
Alexander J. Shackman, University of Maryland, USA

Copyright © 2013 Robinson, Vytal, Cornwell and Grillon. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in other forums, provided the original authors and source are credited and subject to any copyright notices concerning any third-party graphics etc.

*Correspondence: Oliver J. Robinson, Section on the Neurobiology of Fear and Anxiety, National Institute of Mental Health, 15K North Drive, Bethesda, MD 20892, USA. e-mail: oliver.j.robinson@gmail.com

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