The performance of patients with unilateral neglect (UN) in tasks demanding visual attention is characterized by contralesional disadvantage which is markedly unstable in magnitude. Such instability of the attentional system is seen very clearly in clinical practice and thus far has no satisfying explanation. Here we examined the immediate effect of exposure to non-lateralized emotional stimuli on UN patients’ attentional bias and performance variability. We tested eight right-hemisphere damaged stroke patients with left-sided neglect and eight age-matched healthy subjects in a visual conjunction-search task, each trial performed immediately after viewing a centrally-presented picture, which was emotionally negative, positive or neutral. Both performance bias and variability in performing the search task was analyzed as a function of the valence of the picture, and a method for analyzing reaction time (RT) variance in a small sample is introduced. Overall, UN subjects, but not controls, were slower and more variable in their RT for left- compared to right-sided targets. In the UN group, detecting left-sided targets was significantly slower in trials that followed presentation of negative pictures as compared to positive pictures, regardless of the fact that both picture types were judged as equally arousing by the patients. Moreover, UN patients exhibited larger performance variance on the left then on the right, and negative emotional stimuli were associated with larger variance asymmetry than positive emotional stimuli. Examining the coefficient of variation pointed to a possible dissociation between the effects of emotional stimuli on the lateralized RT mean (reflecting attentional bias) and on the lateralized RT variance (reflecting system instability). We conclude that emotional stimuli affect the spatial imbalance of both performance speed and stability in UN patients.
Immediate effects of exposure to positive and negative emotional stimuli on visual search characteristics in patients with unilateral neglect
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