The complex interaction between anxiety and cognition: insight from spatial and verbal working memory

Katherine E. Vytal, Brian R. Cornwell, Allison M. Letkiewicz, Nicole E. Arkin, Christian Grillon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

157 Citations (Scopus)


Anxiety can be distracting, disruptive, and incapacitating. Despite problems with empirical replication of this phenomenon, one fruitful avenue of study has emerged from working memory (WM) experiments where a translational method of anxiety induction (risk of shock) has been shown to disrupt spatial and verbal WM performance. Performance declines when resources (e.g., spatial attention, executive function) devoted to goal-directed behaviors are consumed by anxiety. Importantly, it has been shown that anxiety-related impairments in verbal WM depend on task difficulty, suggesting that cognitive load may be an important consideration in the interaction between anxiety and cognition. Here we use both spatial and verbal WM paradigms to probe the effect of cognitive load on anxiety-induced WM impairment across task modality. Subjects performed a series of spatial and verbal n-back tasks of increasing difficulty (1, 2, and 3-back) while they were either safe or at risk for shock. Startle reflex was used to probe anxiety. Results demonstrate that induced-anxiety differentially impacts verbal and spatial WM, such that low and medium-load verbal WM is more susceptible to anxiety-related disruption relative to high-load, and spatial WM is disrupted regardless of task difficulty. Anxiety impacts both verbal and spatial processes, as described by correlations between anxiety and performance impairment, albeit the effect on spatial WM is consistent across load. Demanding WM tasks may exert top-down control over higher-order cortical resources engaged by anxious apprehension, however high-load spatial WM may continue to experience additional competition from anxiety-related changes in spatial attention, resulting in impaired performance. By describing this disruption across task modalities, these findings inform current theories of emotion-cognition interactions and may facilitate development of clinical interventions that seek to target cognitive impairments associated with anxiety.

Original languageEnglish
Article number93
Number of pages11
JournalFrontiers in Human Neuroscience
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • anxiety
  • working memory
  • cognition
  • startle
  • electromyography
  • performance


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