Neural correlates of opposing effects of emotional distraction on working memory and episodic memory: An event-related fMRI investigation

Florin Dolcos, Alexandru D. Iordan, James Kragel, Jared Stokes, Ryan Campbell, Gregory McCarthy, Roberto Cabeza

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A fundamental question in the emotional memory literature is why emotion enhances memory in some conditions but disrupts memory in other conditions. For example, separate studies have shown that emotional stimuli tend to be better remembered in long-term episodic memory (EM), whereas emotional distracters tend to impair working memory (WM) maintenance. The first goal of this study was to directly compare the neural correlates of EM enhancement (EME) and WM impairing (WMI) effects, and the second goal was to explore individual differences in these mechanisms. During event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), participants maintained faces in WM while being distracted by emotional or neutral pictures presented during the delay period. EM for the distracting pictureswas tested after scanning andwas used to identify successful encoding activity for the picture distracters.The first goal yielded two findings: (1) emotional pictures that disrupted face WM but enhanced subsequent EM were associated with increased amygdala (AMY) and hippocampal activity (ventral system) coupled with reduced dorsolateral PFC (dlPFC) activity (dorsal system); (2) trials in which emotion enhanced EM without disruptingWMwere associated with increased ventrolateral PFC activity.The ventral-dorsal switch can explain EME and WMI, while the ventrolateral PFC effect suggests a coping mechanism. The second goal yielded two additional findings: (3) participants who were more susceptible toWMI showed greater amygdala increases and PFC reductions; (4)AMY activity increased and dlPFC activity decreased with measures of attentional impulsivity. Taken together, these results clarify the mechanisms linking the enhancing and impairing effects of emotion on memory, and provide insights into the role of individual differences in the impact of emotional distraction.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number293
Pages (from-to)1-16
Number of pages16
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Issue numberJUN
StatePublished - 2013


  • Amy
  • Dlpfc
  • Emotional control
  • Emotional interference
  • Emotional memory
  • Hc
  • Vlpfc

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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