Arousal-Biased Competition Explains Reduced Distraction by Reward Cues under Threat.
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Anxiety is an adaptive neural state that promotes rapid responses under heightened vigilance when survival is threatened. Anxiety has consistently been found to potentiate the attentional processing of physically salient stimuli. However, a recent study demonstrated that a threat manipulation reduces attentional capture by reward-associated stimuli, suggesting a more complex relationship between anxiety and the control of attention. The mechanisms by which threat can reduce the distracting quality of stimuli are unknown. In this study, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) on human subjects, we examined the neural correlates of attention to previously reward-associated stimuli with and without the threat of unpredictable electric shock. We replicate enhanced distractor-evoked activity throughout the value-driven attention network (VDAN) in addition to enhanced stimulus-evoked activity generally under threat. Importantly, these two factors interacted such that the representation of previously reward-associated distractors was particularly pronounced under threat. Our results from neuroimaging fit well with the principle of arousal-biased competition (ABC), although such effects are typically associated with behavioral measures of increased attention to stimuli that already possess elevated attentional priority. The findings of our study suggest that ABC can be leveraged to support more efficient ignoring of reward cues, revealing new insights into the functional significance of ABC as a mechanism of attentional control, and provide a mechanistic explanation of how threat reduces attention to irrelevant reward information.