The rapid and efficient selection of emotionally salient or goal-relevant stimuli in the environment is crucial for flexible and adaptive behaviors. Converging data from neuroscience and psychology have accrued during the last decade to identify brain systems involved in emotion processing, selective attention, and their interaction, which together act to extract the emotional or motivational value of sensory events and respond appropriately. An important hub in these systems is the amygdala, which may not only monitor the emotional value of stimuli, but also readily project to several other areas and send feedback to sensory pathways (including striate and extrastriate visual cortex). This system generates saliency signals that modulate perceptual, motor, as well as memory processes, and thus in turn regulate behavior appropriately. Here, we review our current views on the function and properties of these brain systems, with an emphasis on their involvement in the rapid and/or preferential processing of threat-relevant stimuli. We suggest that emotion signals may enhance processing efficiency and competitive strength of emotionally significant events through gain control mechanisms similar to those of other (e.g. endogenous) attentional systems, but mediated by distinct neural mechanisms in amygdala and interconnected prefrontal areas. Alterations in these brain mechanisms might be associated with psychopathological conditions, such as anxiety or phobia. We conclude that attention selection and awareness are determined by multiple attention gain control systems that may operate in parallel and use different sensory cues but act on a common perceptual pathway.