Impact of Chronic Stress on Attention Control: Evidence from Behavioral and Event-Related Potential Analyses

Qingjin Liu 1,2 • Yong Liu 1,2 • Xuechen Leng 1,2 • Jinfeng Han 1,2 • Feng Xia 3 • Hong Chen 1,2

1 Key Laboratory of Cognition and Personality (Ministry of Education), Southwest University, Beibei, Chongqing 400715, China

2 School of Psychology, Southwest University, Chongqing 400715, China

3 Department of Hepatobiliary Surgery, Southwest Hospital, Army Medical University, Chongqing 400038, China


Chronic stress affects brain function, so assessing its hazards is important for mental health. To overcome the limitations of behavioral data, we combined behavioral and event-related potentials (ERPs) in an attention network task. This task allowed us to differentiate between three specific aspects of attention: alerting, orienting, and execution. Forty-one participants under chronic stress and 31 non-stressed participants were enrolled. On the performance level, the chronically stressed group showed a significantly slower task response and lower accuracy. Concerning ERP measures, smaller cue–N1, cue–N2, and larger cue–P3 amplitudes were found in the stressed group, indicating that this group was less able to assign attention to effective information, i.e., they made inefficient use of cues and had difficulty in maintaining alerting. In addition, the stressed group showed larger target–N2 amplitudes, indicating that this group needed to allocate more cognitive resources to deal with the conflict targets task. Subgroup analysis revealed lower target–P3 amplitudes in the stressed than in the non-stressed group. Group differences associated with the attention networks were found at the ERP level. In the stressed group, excessive depletion of resources led to changes in attention control. In this study, we examined the effects of chronic stress on individual executive function from a neurological perspective. The results may benefit the development of interventions to improve executive function in chronically stressed individuals.



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