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Stress Can Improve Cognitive Control, Enhancing Task Performance

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A recent study published in Human Brain Mapping has shed light on how acute psychosocial stress can influence cognitive control. The Go/NoGo task, a cognitive control task, was the focus of Chrystal Spencer’s and colleagues’ research into the effects of stress on performance and neural processing. Their findings challenge previous notions that stress predominantly impairs cognitive function.

Elizabeth Tricomi, PhD, an associate professor at Rutgers University-Newark, explained the study’s motivation: “We know from previous work that stress can influence cognition. Cognitive control allows us to engage in behaviour that meets our current goals, but it can often tax our mental resources. When feeling stressed, we might have trouble focusing on the task at hand, or we might exert more mental resources to avoid errors. In our study, we used a well-known method of inducing stress, called the Trier Social Stress Task. This task involves giving a speech with little preparation and doing math calculations in front of another person.

“The task induces what is known as ‘psychosocial stress’, because it involves social evaluation and taxes one’s resources to meet the demands of the situation. We were curious to see whether experiencing this type of stress would impair or augment performance on our cognitive control task, which involved “go” (a button press) or “no go” (withholding a button press) responses to red or green traffic light images. It requires additional cognitive control to inhibit our usual responses – for example, since green usually means “go”, it requires cognitive control to withhold a button press when the green traffic light requires a ‘No Go’ response. We also wanted to investigate how stress would impact neural activity supporting task performance.”

The study involved 77 participants, who were divided into two groups: a stress group and a control group. The stress group underwent the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST), a widely used protocol to induce acute stress, which involves delivering a speech and performing mental arithmetic in front of an audience. The control group, on the other hand, completed personality questionnaires. Following this, all participants engaged in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) Go/NoGo task designed to measure cognitive control and response inhibition.

Significant differences in subjective stress ratings and systolic blood pressure between the stress and control groups show that the TSST was effective in eliciting a stress response. Interestingly, while there were no significant differences in cortisol levels between the groups, the stress group showed improved performance on the Go/NoGo task. Participants in the stress group made fewer commission errors on the most demanding NoGo trials, indicating enhanced response inhibition under stress.

Although univariate analysis of fMRI data revealed no significant differences in brain activity between the stress and control groups, multivariate pattern analysis (MVPA) provided a more nuanced understanding. The MVPA successfully differentiated between the two groups based on activation patterns in specific brain regions. Notably, the medial intraparietal area (mIPA) and subregions of the cerebellum showed distinct activation patterns in the stress group. These areas are associated with visuomotor coordination, a function crucial for cognitive control processes.

Tricomi elaborated on the key findings and implications: “Participants who underwent the stress manipulation did rate their stress as higher than a control group who spent the same amount of time filling out questionnaires. We also observed differences in blood pressure between groups, with stress causing an increase in systolic blood pressure. We found that stressed participants then performed better than the control group on the hardest condition of our cognitive control task – withholding responses to the image of the green traffic light.

“Neurally, we observed that across all participants, there were increases in activation in the brain’s Cognitive Control Network during task performance, along with decreases in the brain’s Default Mode Network, the network of brain regions that tend to be active at rest. This indicates that, broadly, participants in both groups similarly engaged the neural networks necessary for task performance. We did observe group differences in patterns of activation in several brain regions involved in visuomotor coordination, however, including the medial intraparietal area and the cerebellum; these differences may help to account for the differences we observed in task performance.”

The findings suggest that acute stress can enhance cognitive control by increasing vigilance and promoting more careful, goal-directed behaviour. This aligns with the notion that stress, within certain limits, can facilitate performance on tasks requiring high levels of cognitive control. The researchers propose that this might be due to stress-induced hypervigilance, which improves response inhibition.

Interestingly, the study also found that stress-related improvements in task performance were associated with increased engagement and motivation. Participants in the stress group reported higher levels of task engagement and intrinsic motivation, which could have contributed to their better performance.

Tricomi added: “Our results underscore the idea that stress is not necessarily a bad thing. The effects of stress on performance are often described as following an inverted U shape; too much stress can cause people to ‘choke under pressure’ and impair performance, but some degree of stress can actually motivate better performance. In our study, it is possible that participants increased their vigilance to the task so that they could restore their threatened sense of self by performing well. Although that is just one possible explanation for the pattern of results that we saw, it is consistent with our finding that higher self-reported stress ratings were associated with higher ratings of task engagement.”

These results contrast with some previous studies that have reported stress-related impairments in cognitive function. The authors suggest that the nature of the task and the level of stress might play critical roles in determining whether stress enhances or impairs performance. For instance, tasks requiring response inhibition might benefit from the heightened vigilance induced by stress, whereas tasks requiring sustained attention or cognitive flexibility might suffer.

The study opens up new avenues for understanding the complex relationship between stress and cognitive function. Future research could explore the effects of different types and levels of stress on various cognitive tasks to further elucidate these dynamics. Tricomi shared her future plans: “We are currently beginning a project on math anxiety in my lab. Math anxiety is widespread, and it can often cause students to avoid courses and careers involving math. We are curious about whether math anxiety impacts the neural response to feedback indicating whether an answer to a math problem was correct or incorrect. Negative feedback provides useful information, but it can also cause negative emotions such as frustration, shame, and discouragement.

“The informative aspect of negative feedback might help some people improve their performance, but others may avoid situations where they might get negative feedback so that they can avoid feeling negative emotions. Negative feedback can cause a ‘punishment’ response in the brain’s reward processing network, similar to its response to losing money. If this punishment response to math-related negative feedback is exaggerated for those with math anxiety, that may help explain why math-anxious people tend to avoid situations where they would need to do math. Alternatively, it might be that people with high math anxiety don’t expect to do well on math problems, so negative feedback may not create as strong of a response in the brain. This may prevent students with math anxiety from learning as much from their mistakes. We are designing a study to test these possibilities.”

The study opens up new avenues for understanding the complex relationship between stress and cognitive function. Future research could explore the effects of different types and levels of stress on various cognitive tasks to further elucidate these dynamics.

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