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Sympathetic arousal, but not disturbed executive functioning, mediates the impairment of cognitive flexibility under stress

Sympathetic arousal, but not disturbed executive functioning, mediates the impairment of cognitive flexibility under stress

Published in: Cognition, Volume 174, May 2018, 94-102

Abstract
“Cognitive flexibility emerges from an interplay of multiple cognitive systems, of which lexical-semantic and executive are thought to be the most important. Yet this has not been addressed by previous studies demonstrating that such forms of flexible thought deteriorate under stress. Motivated by these shortcomings, the present study evaluated several candidate mechanisms implied to mediate the impairing effects of stress on flexible thinking. Fifty-seven healthy adults were randomly assigned to psychosocial stress or control condition while assessed for performance on cognitive flexibility, working memory capacity, semantic fluency, and self-reported cognitive interference. Stress response was indicated by changes in skin conductance, hearth rate, and state anxiety. Our analyses showed that acute stress impaired cognitive flexibility via a concomitant increase in sympathetic arousal, while this mediator was positively associated with semantic fluency. Stress also decreased working memory capacity, which was partially mediated by elevated cognitive interference, but neither of these two measures were associated with cognitive flexibility or sympathetic arousal. Following these findings, we conclude that acute stress impairs cognitive flexibility via sympathetic arousal that modulates lexical-semantic and associative processes. In particular, the results indicate that stress-level of sympathetic activation may restrict the accessibility and integration of remote associates and bias the response competition towards prepotent and dominant ideas. Importantly, our results indicate that stress-induced impairments of cognitive flexibility and executive functions are mediated by distinct neurocognitive mechanisms.”

Written by: Martin Marko, Igor Riečansky
For full text: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2018.02.004

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