Turning Down the Heat: Neural Mechanisms of Cognitive Control for Inhibiting Task-Irrelevant Emotional Information During Adolescence

Marie T. Banich, University of Colorado Boulder
Harry R. Smolker, University of Colorado Boulder
Hannah R. Snyder, Brandeis University
Jarrod A. Lewis-Peacock, University of Texas at Austin
Detre A. Godinez, University of Denver
Tor D. Wager, University of Colorado Boulder
Benjamin L. Hankin, University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign


One major question in the cognitive neuroscience of cognitive control is whether prefrontal regions contribute to control by upregulating the processing of task-relevant material or by downregulating the processing of task-irrelevant material. Here we take a unique approach to addressing this question by using multi-voxel pattern analysis, which allowed us to determine the degree to which each of the task-relevant and task-irrelevant dimensions of a stimulus are being processed in posterior cortex on a trial-by-trial basis. In our study, adolescent participants performed an emotion word – emotional face Stroop task requiring them to determine the emotional valence (positive, negative) of a task-relevant word in the context of a task-irrelevant emotional face. Using mediation models, we determined whether activation of a major cognitive control region, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), influences reaction time on a trial-by-trial basis directly or if it does so indirectly by modulating processing of the task-relevant and/or task-irrelevant information in posterior brain regions. To examine the specificity of the effects observed for the DLPFC, similar analyses were performed for the amygdala, a brain region involved in processing of the salient task-irrelevant emotional information.

For both congruent and incongruent trials, increased DLPFC activity on a given trial was associated with reduced perceptual processing of the task-irrelevant face, consistent with the idea that top-down cognitive control can modulate processing of task-irrelevant information. No effect of DLPFC activity was observed on processing of the task-relevant word. However, increased processing of the task-relevant word was associated with longer RT on congruent trials but not incongruent trials, which may reflect a need for greater processing of the task-relevant word to overcome any influence of the pre-potent task-irrelevant face.

In a more exploratory aspect of our investigation, multi-level moderated mediation models were used to examine the influence of individual differences on the observed brain-behavior relationships. For congruent trials, the influence of task-irrelevant face processing on RT was decreased in individuals with higher self-reported Executive Control and increased in those with higher levels of self-reported Negative Affect.

These results suggest that cognitive control regions in prefrontal cortex during adolescence can suppress the processing of task-irrelevant information in sensory cortex to influence performance (RT). The processing of task-relevant information may also influence performance, but such processing did not reveal evidence of being modulated by cognitive control regions. Moreover, these effects are sensitive to individual differences in the self-reported ability to exert cognitive and affective control. As such, we provide insights into the more precise mechanisms by which cognitive control influences task performance on a trial-by-trial basis during adolescence.