Stout, D. M., Shackman, A. J., & Larson, C. L. (2013). Failure to filter: Anxious individuals show inefficient gating of threat from working memory. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7: 58. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00058.  PDFicon-25x39
Dispositional anxiety is a well-established risk factor for the development of psychiatric disorders along the internalizing spectrum, including anxiety and depression. Importantly, many of the maladaptive behaviors characteristic of anxiety, such as anticipatory apprehension, occur when threat is absent. This raises the possibility that anxious individuals are less efficient at gating threat’s access to working memory, a limited capacity workspace where information is actively retained, manipulated, and used to flexibly guide goal-directed behavior when it is no longer present in the external environment.

Using a well-validated neurophysiological index of working memory storage, we demonstrate that threat-related distracters were difficult to filter on average and that this difficulty was exaggerated among anxious individuals.

These results indicate that dispositionally anxious individuals allocate excessive working memory storage to threat, even when it is irrelevant to the task at hand. More broadly, these results provide a novel framework for understanding the maladaptive thoughts and actions characteristic of internalizing disorders.