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Neural Plasticity
Volume 2017 (2017), Article ID 6817349, 15 pages
Review Article

Genesis and Maintenance of Attentional Biases: The Role of the Locus Coeruleus-Noradrenaline System

1Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia, 2136 West Mall, Vancouver, BC, Canada V6T 1Z4
2Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health, University of British Columbia, 2215 Wesbrook Mall, Vancouver, BC, Canada V6T 1Z3

Correspondence should be addressed to Mana R. Ehlers

Received 13 January 2017; Revised 13 June 2017; Accepted 27 June 2017; Published 20 July 2017

Academic Editor: Niels Hansen

Copyright © 2017 Mana R. Ehlers and Rebecca M. Todd. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


Emotionally arousing events are typically better remembered than mundane ones, in part because emotionally relevant aspects of our environment are prioritized in attention. Such biased attentional tuning is itself the result of associative processes through which we learn affective and motivational relevance of cues. We propose that the locus coeruleus-noradrenaline (LC-NA) system plays an important role in the genesis of attentional biases through associative learning processes as well as their maintenance. We further propose that individual differences in and disruptions of the LC-NA system underlie the development of maladaptive biases linked to psychopathology. We provide support for the proposed role of the LC-NA system by first reviewing work on attentional biases in development and its link to psychopathology in relation to alterations and individual differences in NA availability. We focus on pharmacological manipulations to demonstrate the effect of a disrupted system as well as the ADRA2b polymorphism as a tool to investigate naturally occurring differences in NA availability. We next review associative learning processes that—modulated by the LC-NA system—result in such implicit attentional biases. Further, we demonstrate how NA may influence aversive and appetitive conditioning linked to anxiety disorders as well as addiction and depression.