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Peripheral and central correlates of renewal of fear in post-traumatic stress disorder

H. Flor, M. Wicking, F. Steiger, M. Ruttorf, O. Grimm, L. Schad and F. Nees

Psychophysiology, 50, S1, p.S33

Deficits in extinction processes are assumed to play an important role in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Extinction of fear to a conditioned stimulus (CS) is thought to form a memory trace that predicts the absence of the unconditioned fear stimulus. Contextual stimuli regulate the expression of fear to the CS by providing information about which memory trace is to retrieve.We examined the context specificity of long-delay extinction in PTSD-patients, compared to traumatized subjects without PTSD (NPTSD) and healthy controls (HC, N = 20 each). We applied an ABC renewal procedure using virtual reality environments during functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Extinction took place one day after acquisition, renewal was tested one week later. Skin conductance responses and ratings of contingency, arousal and valence were also assessed. The verbal ratings showed similar renewal for the PTSD and NPTSD and less for the HC. In the skin conductance responses, only the PTSD patients showed a greater differentiation between CS+ and CS–. In the fMRI data, PTSD patients compared to both other groups exhibited higher activation in the amygdala during renewal. In contrast, trauma-exposed non-PTSD subjects showed higher activation of the orbitofrontal cortex during renewal than the two other groups. Our results indicate that extinction learning is disrupted in PTSD patients and therefore may make them more vulnerable to the return of fear through context change. NPTSD persons may activate protective mechanisms. Supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (SFB 636/C01 and SFB 636/Z03).

Contact: Prof. Dr. Frank Zöllner last modified: 21.05.2019
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