Brain Mechanisms of Social Threat Effects on Working Memory.

Citation: van Ast, V. A., Spicer, J., Smith, E.E., Schmer-Galunder, S., Liberzon, I., Abelson, J.L. & Wager, T.D. (2014). Brain mechanisms of social threat effects on working memory. Cerebral Cortex. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhu206

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Social threat can have adverse effects on cognitive performance, but the brain mechanisms underlying its effects are poorly understood. We investigated the effects of social evaluative threat on working memory (WM), a core component of many important cognitive cap- abilities. Social threat impaired WM performance during an N-back task and produced widespread reductions in activation in lateral pre- frontal cortex and intraparietal sulcus (IPS), among other regions. In addition, activity in frontal and parietal regions predicted WM per- formance, and mediation analyses identified regions in the bilateral IPS that mediated the performance-impairing effects of social threat. Social threat also decreased connectivity between the IPS and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, while increasing connectivity between the IPS and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a region strongly implicated in the generation of autonomic and emotional re- sponses. Finally, cortisol response to the stressor did not mediate WM impairment but was rather associated with protective effects. These results provide a basis for understanding interactions between social and cognitive processes at a neural systems level.