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How 'hot' emotional brain interferes with 'cool' processing

For the first time, researchers have seen in action how the "hot" emotional centers of the brain can interfere with "cool" cognitive processes such as those involved in memory tasks. Their functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) images of human volunteers exposed to emotional distraction revealed a "see-saw" effect, in which activation of emotional centers damped activity in the "executive" centers responsible for such processing.

The findings of the Duke University Medical Center researchers provide insight into the basic brain mechanisms responsible for the distraction caused by emotional stimuli that are irrelevant to a task. Moreover, they said, the findings offer a new approach to understanding how people with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder cope with traumatic events and memories. It is known that people with such problems are far more affected by emotional distraction.

Development of new drugs to alleviate, for example, the haunting memories of PTSD sufferers will be aided by the fMRI technique the researchers developed to precisely measure this distraction, they said.

The researchers, Florin Dolcos and Gregory McCarthy, published their findings in the Feb. 15, 2006, issue of the Journal of Neuroscience. Their work was sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and the Veterans Administration. Dolcos is a postdoctoral fellow and McCarthy is director of the Duke-UNC Brain Imaging and Analysis Center (http://www.biac.duke.edu/), where the studies took place.

In their experiments, the researchers asked volunteer subjects to memorize sets of images of three human faces. Next, they exposed the subjects to one of three types of distracters -- emotional images such as injured people or aggressive behavior; neutral images such as people shopping or working; and scrambled images that meant nothing. The subjects were then showed a face image and asked to determine whether it
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Contact: Dennis Meredith
dennis.meredith@duke.edu
919-681-8054
Duke University Medical Center
15-Feb-2006


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