It is well established that emotionally salient stimuli evoke greater visual cortex activation than neutral ones, and can distract attention from competing tasks. Yet less is known about underlying neurobiological processes. As a proxy of population level biased competition, EEG steady-state visual evoked potentials are sensitive to competition effects from salient stimuli. Here we wished to examine whether individual differences in norepinephrine activity play a role in emotionally-biased competition. Our previous research has found robust effects of a common variation in the ADRA2B gene, coding for alpha2B norepinephrine (NE) receptors, on emotional modulation of attention and memory. In the present study, EEG was collected while 87 carriers of the ADRA2B deletion variant and 95 non-carriers (final sample) performed a change detection task in which target gratings (gabor patches) were superimposed directly over angry, happy, and neutral faces. Participants indicated the number of phase changes (0–3) in the target. Overlapping targets and distractors were flickered at a distinct driving frequencies. Relative EEG power for faces vs. targets at the driving frequency served as an index of cortical resources allocated to each of the competing stimuli. Deletion carriers and non-carriers were randomly assigned to Discovery and Replication samples and reliability of results across samples was assessed before the groups were combined for greater power. Overall happy faces evoked higher competition than angry or neutral faces; however, we observed no hypothesized effects of ADRA2B. Increased competition from happy faces was not due to the effect of low-level visual features or individuals low in social anxiety. Our results indicate that emotionally biased competition during sustained attention, while reliably observed in young adults, is not influenced by commonly observed individual differences linked to NE receptor function. They further indicate an overall pattern of affectively-biased competition for happy faces, which we interpret in relation to previously observed boundary conditions.

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Collabra: Psychology

Roberts, K.H. (Kevin H.), Manaligod, M.G.M. (Maria G.M.), Ross, C. J., Müller, D.J. (Daniel J.), Wieser, M.J. (Matthias J.), & Todd, R.M. (Rebecca M.). (2019). Affectively biased competition: Sustained attention is tuned to rewarding expressions and is not modulated by norepinephrine receptor gene variant. Collabra: Psychology, 5(1). doi:10.1525/collabra.202