Do unexpected sounds suspend cognition in patients with anxiety disorders?

In our latest study, we compared 16 patients with anxiety disorders and 16 matched control participants in a cross-modal oddball task in which they were asked to categorize the parity of visual digits while ignoring task-irrelevant sounds preceding each digit. Rare and unexpected changes in the stream of sounds delayed responses equally in both groups but patients showed a selective increase in the number of response omissions. Our results suggest that faced with a deviant sound, patients with anxiety disorders have a greater tendency to see their cognitive activity temporarily suspended. Interestingly, however, when patients’ behaviour did not “freeze”, their performance (in terms of response accuracy and response times) was as accurate as that of control participants. We suggest that this may reflect a deficient calibration of a circuit-breaker system thought to “freeze” all actions in the face of unexpected events.

"We conclude that pathological anxiety might lower the threshold of activation of a circuit breaker interrupting ongoing cognitive processes and resulting, with a greater probability than in controls, in the temporary suspension of responses"
   
  
 
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    Mean proportion of correct responses (Panel A), mean proportion of omissions (Panel B), and mean response times for correct responses (Panel C), for the standard and deviant conditions in patients with anxiety and control participants. Error bars represent one standard error of the mean.   
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Mean proportion of correct responses (Panel A), mean proportion of omissions (Panel B), and mean response times for correct responses (Panel C), for the standard and deviant conditions in patients with anxiety and control participants. Error bars represent one standard error of the mean.

Reference: Pacheco-Unguetti, A. P., Gelabert, J. M., & Parmentier, F. B. R. (2015). Can auditory deviant stimuli temporarily suspend cognitive processing? Evidence from patients with anxiety. Manuscript in press in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.