, Volume 9, Issue 2, pp 144-152

Do tests of executive functioning predict ability to downregulate emotions spontaneously and when instructed to suppress?

Abstract

Behavioral regulation is a hallmark feature of executive functioning (EF). The present study investigated whether commonly used neuropsychological test measures of EF (i.e., working memory, Stroop, trail making, and verbal fluency) were related to ability to downregulate emotion both spontaneously and when instructed to suppress emotional expressions. To ensure a wide range of EF, 24 frontotemporal lobar degeneration patients, 7 Alzheimer's patients, and 17 neurologically normal controls participated. Participants were exposed to an acoustic startle stimulus (single aversive noise burst) under three conditions: (1) unwarned, (2) warned with no instructions (to measure spontaneous emotion downregulation), and (3) warned with instructions to suppress (to measure instructed emotion downregulation). Results indicated that higher verbal fluency scores were related to greater emotion regulation (operationalized as reduction in body movement and emotional facial behavior when warned of the impending startle) in both regulation conditions. No relationships were found between emotion regulation in these conditions and the other EF measures. We conclude that, of four commonly used measures of EF, verbal fluency best indexes the complex processes of monitoring, evaluation, and control necessary for successful emotion regulation, both spontaneously and following instructions to suppress.

This research was supported by National Institute on Aging Grants AG17766 and P01-AG19724 (subcontract) and National Institute of Mental Health Grant T32 MH20006 awarded to R.W.L.; National Institute on Aging Grants 1K08AG02076001, AG10129, P50-AG05142, and AG16570 awarded to B.L.M.; and the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center of California.