Brain Mechanisms of Social Threat Effects on Working Memory

V. A. Van Ast, J. Spicer, E. E. Smith, S. Schmer-Galunder, I. Liberzon, J. L. Abelson, T. D. Wager

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

43 Scopus citations


Social threat can have adverse effects on cognitive performance, but the brain mechanisms underlying its effects are poorly understood. We investigated the effects of social evaluative threat on working memory (WM), a core component of many important cognitive capabilities. Social threat impaired WM performance during an N-back task and produced widespread reductions in activation in lateral prefrontal cortex and intraparietal sulcus (IPS), among other regions. In addition, activity in frontal and parietal regions predicted WM performance, and mediation analyses identified regions in the bilateral IPS that mediated the performance-impairing effects of social threat. Social threat also decreased connectivity between the IPS and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, while increasing connectivity between the IPS and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a region strongly implicated in the generation of autonomic and emotional responses. Finally, cortisol response to the stressor did not mediate WM impairment but was rather associated with protective effects. These results provide a basis for understanding interactions between social and cognitive processes at a neural systems level.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)544-556
Number of pages13
JournalCerebral Cortex
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1 2016


  • Executive function
  • FMRI
  • Intraparietal sulcus
  • Mediation
  • Stress

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience


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