Heightened attentional capture by threat in veterans with PTSD

Bunmi O. Olatunji, Thomas Armstrong, Maureen McHugo, David H. Zald

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

55 Scopus citations


Although an attentional bias for threat-relevant cues has been theorized in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), to date empirical demonstration of this phenomenon has been at best inconsistent. Furthermore, the nature of this bias in PTSD has not been clearly delineated. In the present study, veterans with PTSD (n = 20), trauma-exposed veterans without PTSD (n = 16), and healthy nonveteran controls (n = 22) completed an emotional attentional blink task that measures the extent to which emotional stimuli capture and hold attention. Participants searched for a target embedded within a series of rapidly presented images. Critically, a combat-related, disgust, positive, or neutral distracter image appeared 200 ms, 400 ms, 600 ms, or 800 ms before the target. Impaired target detection was observed among veterans with PTSD relative to both veterans without PTSD and healthy nonveteran controls after only combat-related threat distracters when presented 200 ms, 400 ms, or 600 ms before the target, indicating increased attentional capture by cues of war and difficulty disengaging from such cues for an extended period. Veterans without PTSD and healthy nonveteran controls did not significantly differ from each other in target detection accuracy after combat-related threat distracters. These data support the presence of an attentional bias toward combat related stimuli in PTSD that should be a focus of treatment efforts

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)397-405
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Abnormal Psychology
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2013
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Biological Psychiatry


  • Attention
  • Disengagement
  • Ptsd
  • Threat


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