Neural correlates of working memory’s suppression of aversive olfactory distraction effects

Alexander Weigard, Stephen J. Wilson, Zvi Shapiro, Hilary Galloway-Long, Cynthia Huang-Pollock

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Human cognitive performance is often disrupted by distractions related to aversive stimuli and affective states, but, paradoxically, there is also evidence to suggest that high working memory demands reduce the impact of aversive distraction. Previous empirical work suggests this latter effect occurs because working memory demands reduce attention to off-task processes, but the brain regions that mediate this effect remain uncertain. The current study utilizes a novel distraction manipulation involving unpleasant odorants to identify neural structures that buffer performance from aversive distraction under high working memory demands, and to clarify their connectivity in this context. Twenty-one healthy young adults (12 women) completed a verbal n-back task under two levels of load and were concurrently exposed to either room air or aversive odorants. Three brain regions displayed increases in neural responses to olfactory distractors under high load only; the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and right cerebellar Crus I. Of these regions, only the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex also displayed context-specific connectivity with a region thought to be involved in off-task processes: the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex. Overall, results suggest that, under high working memory demands, areas of the prefrontal cortex and cerebellum shield cognition from aversive distraction, potentially through interactions with brain structures involved in off-task processes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalBrain Imaging and Behavior
StateAccepted/In press - 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Clinical Neurology
  • Neurology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Radiology Nuclear Medicine and imaging
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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