Hypervigilance towards threat is one of the defining features of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This symptom predicts that individuals with PTSD will be biased to attend to potential dangers in the environment. However, cognitive tasks designed to assess visual-spatial attentional biases have shown mixed results. A newer proposal suggests that attentional bias is not a static phenomenon, but rather is characterized by fluctuations towards and away from threat. Here, we tested 28 combat Veterans with PTSD and 28 control Veterans on a dot probe task with negative-neutral word pairs. Combat-related words and generically negative words were presented in separate blocks. Replicating previous results, neither group showed a bias to attend towards or away from threat, but PTSD patients showed greater attentional bias variability (ABV), which correlated with symptom severity. However, the cognitive processes indexed by ABV are unclear. The present results indicated that ABV was strongly correlated with standard deviation at the reaction time (RT) level and with excessively long RTs (ex-Gaussian tau) related to cognitive failures. These findings suggest an overall increase in response variability unrelated to threat-related biases in spatial attention, and support a disruption in more general cognitive control processes in PTSD.
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