Testing locus coeruleus-norepinephrine accounts of working memory, attention control, and fluid intelligence

Matthew K. Robison, Kathryn J. Ralph, Dawn M. Gondoli, Alexis Torres, Stephen Campbell, Gene A. Brewer, Bradley S. Gibson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


The current set of studies examined the relationship among working memory capacity, attention control, fluid intelligence, and pupillary correlates of tonic arousal regulation and phasic responsiveness in a combined sample of more than 1,000 participants in two different age ranges (young adults and adolescents). Each study was designed to test predictions made by two recent theories regarding the role of the locus coeruleus-norepinephrine (LC-NE) system in determining individual differences in cognitive ability. The first theory, proposed by Unsworth and Robison (2017a), posits two important individual differences: the moment-to-moment regulation of tonic arousal, and the phasic responsiveness of the system to goal-relevant stimuli. The second theory, proposed by Tsukahara and Engle (2021a), argues that people with higher cognitive abilities have greater functional connectivity between the LC-NE system and cortical networks at rest. These two theories are not mutually exclusive, but they make different predictions. Overall, we found no evidence consistent with a resting-state theory. However, phasic responsiveness was consistently correlated with working memory capacity, attention control, and fluid intelligence, supporting a prediction made by Unsworth and Robison (2017a). Tonic arousal regulation was not correlated with working memory or fluid intelligence and was inconsistently correlated with attention control, which offers only partial support for Unsworth and Robison’s (2017a) second prediction.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1014-1058
Number of pages45
JournalCognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 2023


  • Arousal
  • Attention
  • Intelligence
  • Pupillometry
  • Working memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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