Differential effects of cortisol and baroreceptor activity on executive processes and attention

Responsible: B. Sc. Lisa Pramme

Effects of stress and its physiological correlates on information processing and cognitive per-formance seem to be selective. Whereas simple, over-learned behaviors are mainly unaffected, performance based on complex cognitive processes are often impaired (e.g., Staal, 2004). A pivotal moderator of stress effects on task performance may therefore be the degree of at-tentional resources needed to be allocated to a certain task. Considering the structural basis of different attentional functions (e.g., top-down versus bottom-up; alerting, orienting versus executive functions) corresponding neural networks have been identified (e.g. Corbetta & Shulman, 2002; Peterson & Posner, 2012). Those networks are distinguishable on the basis of anatomical structures and transmitters involved as well as by the time of their phylogenetic origin. Drawing on different neural structures therefore allows for behavior patterns ranging from simple to complex and from stimulus-driven to goal-directed. The current research project addresses the question whether physiological parameters of stress exert a differential influence on automatic and controlled attentional processes that may sug-gest a selective impact on specific attention networks. The effects of cortisol and cardiovascu-lar parameters on cognitive functions based on behavioral data are being investigated.

Regarding the cardiovascular system a major focus is on the baroreflex that might be im-portant in mediating effects of cardiovascular responses on higher brain structures. Primarily involved in the reflex control of blood pressure an increase in baroreceptor activity exerts a widespread inhibitory effect on the central nervous system. Until now a link between in-creased baroreceptor activity and the impairment of simple sensory and motor functions has been established. A potential impact of baroreceptor activation on executive functions has not yet been the object of investigation, but might play a role regarding the availability and allo-cation of attentional resources.