Investigating sustained attention in contextual threat using steady-state VEPs evoked by flickering video stimuli


Anxiety is characterized by anxious anticipation and heightened vigilance to uncertain threat. However, if threat is not reliably indicated by a specific cue, the context in which threat was previously experienced becomes its best predictor, leading to anxiety. A suitable means to induce anxiety experimentally is context conditioning. In one context (CTX+), an unpredictable aversive stimulus (US) is repeatedly presented, in contrast to a second context (CTX−), in which no US is ever presented. In this EEG study, we investigated attentional mechanisms during acquisition and extinction learning in 38 participants, who underwent a context conditioning protocol. Flickering video stimuli (32 s clips depicting virtual offices representing CTX+/−) were used to evoke steady-state visual evoked potentials (ssVEPs) as an index of visuocortical engagement with the contexts. Analyses of the electrocortical responses suggest a successful induction of the ssVEP signal by video presentation in flicker mode. Furthermore, we found clear indices of context conditioning and extinction learning on a subjective level, while cortical processing of the CTX+ was unexpectedly reduced during video presentation. The differences between CTX+ and CTX− diminished during extinction learning. Together, these results indicate that the dynamic sensory input of the video presentation leads to disruptions in the ssVEP signal, which is greater for motivationally significant, threatening contexts.

Psychophysyiology, 60(5,1-12)
Yannik Stegmann
Scientific Researcher

My research interests include fear, anxiety and anxiety disorders, as well as how aversive learning shapes perception.