Skip to main content

Mechanisms of Emotion Control: Identifying Neuro-Cognitive Abnormalities Predisposing to Hypertension

Final Report Summary - COEM (Mechanisms of Emotion Control: Identifying Neuro-Cognitive Abnormalities Predisposing to Hypertension)

Mechanisms of Emotion-Control: Identifying Neuro-Cognitive Abnormalities Predisposing to Hypertension (
Essential hypertension (EH) is the most important risk factor for cerebrovascular diseases. My research examines whether the enhanced reactions to aversive stimuli exhibited by individuals at high risk of developing EH are related to abnormalities in cognitive control systems. To this end, the current research project has two objectives: 1) to gain a better understanding of emotion-control mechanisms in healthy individuals, and 2) to identify abnormal neuro-cognitive mechanisms in individuals at high risk of developing EH.
My lab has conducted several projects in order to pursue these two research goals. We employed emotional modifications of cognitive tasks in order to examine how emotion interacts with different cognitive mechanisms. We modified well-established tasks that assess biases of attention, memory, interpretation, expectancy and cognitive control. Preliminary findings show that while healthy participants show adaptive prioritized processing of emotional items, individuals with high levels of anxiety and depression (though still in the normal range of symptoms) show biased negative interpretation of ambiguous sentences, expectancy for negative future events, stronger memory for negative words, and an inability to ignore negative pictures. In another project, together with Prof. Tatjana Aue, we employed a variation of a task that manipulates expectancy of spiders to examine how expectancy influences spatial attention. In a third joint research project with Prof. Simone Shamay-Tsoory, we examined whether exposure to a painful scenario results in biased judgement of pain and, if so, whether emotion-control modulates this bias. We prepared and validated two sets of stimuli and demonstrated that exposure to a picture showing a painful scenario results in biased judgement of a painful facial expression, while matched non-painful scenarios do not elicit biased judgement. We then demonstrated that this bias is modulated by emotion regulation and can be reversed. We replicated these findings in several behavioral experiments, as well as a follow-up fMRI study. In another study we focused on adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In one behavioral study and three ERP experiments, we examined the ability of adults with ADHD to ignore emotional distractors.
For the second research objective (identifying abnormal neuro-cognitive mechanisms in individuals at high risk of developing EH), we conducted three large-scale projects. Two studies compared the reactions of prehypertensive individuals at high risk of developing EH to the reactions of normotensive controls. In addition, a third project examined whether a three-week cognitive training program alleviates the abnormally enhanced blood pressure reactions to emotional stimuli in prehypertension. To achieve these aims, we first established mechanisms for recruitment of individuals at high risk of developing EH. We also established procedures for validating pre-hypertension based on measuring at-rest blood pressure six times on two different occasions. We also established a system for continuous measurement of blood pressure reactions and continuous analysis techniques. In the first study, we compared participants’ blood pressure reactions to highly aversive vs. neutral pictures. The data were analyzed in a continuous statistical model, comparing group (prehypertensive/normotensive), condition (highly aversive, neutral) and time point. The results demonstrated that at-risk individuals exhibited abnormally exaggerated blood pressure reactions to aversive stimuli, compared to controls. In a second study, we compared the blood pressure reactions of prehypertensives to those of normotensives during a motor task. Participants were asked to perform a hand-grip task, and we measured their blood pressure and heart rate. In a third study, we investigated the potential modulation of abnormal blood pressure reactions in prehypertension via cognitive mechanisms. Prehypertensives underwent cognitive training that lasted three weeks. Participants in the experimental group underwent training of working memory functions, which have been previously shown to alleviate depressive and anxious symptoms and increase executive control. Participants in the control group performed an easy version of the working memory task, which does not train executive control. On this project, we collaborated with Prof. Nazanin Derakshan and used an adaptive training developed at her lab.
In conclusion, through various experiments we have attempted to further our understanding regarding the impact of cognitive control on emotional reactions in healthy individuals, populations with high levels of anxiety and depression, patients with ADHD, and individuals at high risk of developing hypertension. The results demonstrate cognitive biases in the face of emotional information, which are exaggerated in anxiety and depression. Empathy modulates similar biases in cognitive judgement, suggesting that biases may serve a social function. We further revealed perceptual biases that may explain other cognitive biases. In addition, following the establishment of procedures for recruiting prehypertensive participants, data acquisition and blood pressure analysis, our findings show differences in blood pressure reactions between prehypertensive individuals and normotensive controls. The posters and papers resulting from these studies are attached. Follow-up projects planned for the coming years will focus on the neural basis of some of these biases, the causal mechanisms that link different cognitive biases, as well as factors modulating biased cognition. My long-term goal is to develop neuro-cognitive paradigms to reduce exaggerated emotional reactions among individuals at psychiatric risk or at high risk of developing EH.