Alcohol’s effects on emotionally motivated attention, defensive reactivity, and subjective anxiety during uncertain threats
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Description: Publication: Bradford, DE, Motschman, CA, Starr, MJ, Curtin, JJ (2017). Alcohol’s effects on emotionally motivated attention, defensive reactivity, and subjective anxiety during uncertain threat. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 12(11), 1823–1832. Abstract: When intoxicated, some individuals engage in dangerous and damaging behaviors that bear a significant financial burden on society. Developing a better understanding of how and under what circumstances alcohol affects the emotions, cognitions and neural functions that precede and contribute to these behaviors may help to reduce their occurrence. These damaging behaviors often occur in situations that involve uncertain threat. Alcohol intoxication has recently been shown to reduce defensive reactivity and anxiety more during uncertain versus certain threat. However, alcohol’s effects on emotionally motivated attention to these threats have not yet been investigated. We examined the effects of a broad range of blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) from sober (0.00% BAC) to moderately intoxicated (0.16% BAC) on 96 participants’ sub-cortically mediated defensive reactivity (startle potentiation), retrospective subjective anxiety (self-report), and cortically assessed emotionally motivated attention (probe P3 event related potential) during uncertain and certain location threat. Sober participants displayed increased defensive reactivity and subjective anxiety during uncertain versus certain threat. However, emotionally motivated attention to each threat was equivalent. Consistent with prior research, alcohol decreased defensive reactivity and subjective anxiety more during uncertain versus certain threat. In a novel finding, alcohol dampened emotional motivated attention during uncertain but not certain threat. This effect appeared to be independent of alcohol’s effects on defensive reactivity and subjective anxiety. These results suggest that alcohol intoxication dampens processing of uncertain threats while leaving processing of certain threats intact. Disrupted attention to uncertain threats may be a previously unstudied pathway to dangerous behavior by intoxicated individuals.