The impact of emotional states on cognitive control circuitry and function
Typically in the laboratory, cognitive and emotional processes are studied separately or as a stream of fleeting emotional stimuli embedded within a cognitive task. Yet in life, thoughts and actions often occur in more lasting emotional states of arousal. The current study examines the impact of emotions on actions using a novel behavioral paradigm and functional neuroimaging to assess cognitive control under sustained states of threat (anticipation of an aversive noise) and excitement (anticipation of winning money). Thirty-eight healthy adult participants were scanned while performing an emotional go/no-go task with positive (happy faces), negative (fearful faces), and neutral (calm faces) emotional cues, under threat or excitement. Cognitive control performance was enhanced during the excited state relative to a nonarousing control condition. This enhanced performance was paralleled by heightened activity of frontoparietal and frontostriatal circuitry. In contrast, under persistent threat, cognitive control was diminished when the valence of the emotional cue conflicted with the emotional state. Successful task performance in this conflicting emotional condition was associated with increased activity in the posterior cingulate cortex, a default mode network region implicated in complex processes such as processing emotions in the context of self and monitoring performance. This region showed positive coupling with frontoparietal circuitry implicated in cognitive control, providing support for a role of the posterior cingulate cortex in mobilizing cognitive resources to improve performance. These findings suggest that emotional states of arousal differentially modulate cognitive control and point to the potential utility of this paradigm for understanding effects of situational and pathological states of arousal on behavior.