Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Anxiety and cognitive performance: better insights and new treatments

How does stress influence cognitive performance? What is the role of selective attention to threatening information in this effect? Could we prevent stress-induced decline of cognitive performance with pharmacological interventions? Could we use resting state theta/beta ratio as a biomarker for cognitive vulnerability to stress?

Contact
Peter Putman
Funding
NWO Vidi Grant NWO Vidi Grant

There are many situations in our lives where we have to perform cognitive tasks and we worry about our performance or other’s evaluation. Slight levels of anxiety/stress might augment performance whereas great levels might lead to devastating outcomes, through the negative effects of noradrenaline and dopamine on prefrontal cortex. For example, many students fail in crucial exams due to high levels of performance anxiety. According to cognitive theories, anxious individuals are preoccupied with negative thoughts (bottom-up processing of negative information), such as worry over underperformance, at the cost of executive resources, which then results in lower cognitive performance. Increased processing of threatening information has evolutionary advantages in dangerous situations, however, it might lead to devastating outcomes when it occurs under situations where executive resources are needed.

Furthermore, we are also interested in resting-state EEG theta/beta ratio as a biomarker for attentional control and stress-induced cognitive vulnerability. There are several finding suggesting that theta/beta ratio is high in clinical populations with attentional deficiencies (i.e. ADHD and ADD) but also in healthy people with low attentional control. Moreover, slow wave and fast wave activity has been associated with the ability to respond to emotional information, such as inhibition of emotional stimuli and emotional regulation.

We aim to investigate the mechanisms that explain the effect of stress on cognitive performance and then apply pharmacological interventions that prevent these effects. In our lab, we use subjective and physiological measures of anxiety, resting-state EEG activity, and computerized tasks for cognitive performance and threat-selective attention.

There are many situations in our lives where we have to perform cognitive tasks and we worry about our performance or other’s evaluation. Slight levels of anxiety/stress might augment performance whereas great levels might lead to devastating outcomes, through the negative effects of noradrenaline and dopamine on prefrontal cortex. For example, many students fail in crucial exams due to high levels of performance anxiety. According to cognitive theories, anxious individuals are preoccupied with negative thoughts (bottom-up processing of negative information), such as worry over underperformance, at the cost of executive resources, which then results in lower cognitive performance. Increased processing of threatening information has evolutionary advantages in dangerous situations, however, it might lead to devastating outcomes when it occurs under situations where executive resources are needed.

Furthermore, we are also interested in resting-state EEG theta/beta ratio as a biomarker for attentional control and stress-induced cognitive vulnerability. There are several finding suggesting that theta/beta ratio is high in clinical populations with attentional deficiencies (i.e. ADHD and ADD) but also in healthy people with low attentional control. Moreover, slow wave and fast wave activity has been associated with the ability to respond to emotional information, such as inhibition of emotional stimuli and emotional regulation.

We aim to investigate the mechanisms that explain the effect of stress on cognitive performance and then apply pharmacological interventions that prevent these effects. In our lab, we use subjective and physiological measures of anxiety, resting-state EEG activity, and computerized tasks for cognitive performance and threat-selective attention.

Connection with other research

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