Fear conditioning and stimulus generalization in association with age in children and adolescents

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Abstract

The aim of the study was to investigate age-related differences in fear learning and generalization in healthy children and adolescents (n = 133), aged 8–17 years, using an aversive discriminative fear conditioning and generalization paradigm adapted from Lau et al. (2008). In the current task, participants underwent 24 trials of discriminative conditioning of two female faces with neutral facial expressions, with (CS+) or without (CS−) a 95-dB loud female scream, presented simultaneously with a fearful facial expression (US). The discriminative conditioning was followed by 72 generalization trials (12 CS+, 12 GS1, 12 GS2, 12 GS3, 12 GS4, and 12 CS−): four generalization stimuli depicting gradual morphs from CS+ to CS− in 20%-steps were created for the generalization phases. We hypothesized that generalization in children and adolescents is negatively correlated with age. The subjective ratings of valence, arousal, and US expectancy (the probability of an aversive noise following each stimulus), as well as skin conductance responses (SCRs) were measured. Repeated-measures ANOVAs on ratings and SCR amplitudes were calculated with the within-subject factors stimulus type (CS+, CS−, GS1-4) and phase (Pre-Acquisition, Acquisition 1, Acquisition 2, Generalization 1, Generalization 2). To analyze the modulatory role of age, we additionally calculated ANCOVAs considering age as covariate. Results indicated that (1) subjective and physiological responses were generally lower with increasing age irrespective to the stimulus quality, and (2) stimulus discrimination improved with increasing age paralleled by reduced overgeneralization in older individuals. Longitudinal follow-up studies are required to analyze fear generalization with regard to brain maturational aspects and clarify whether overgeneralization of conditioned fear promotes the development of anxiety disorders or vice versa.
Original languageEnglish
JournalEuropean Child & Adolescent Psychiatry
Early online date13 May 2021
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 13 May 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This study was partly supported by a grant from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG; SFB-TRR58, project Z02 to KD, JD, AR, PP, and MR).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021, The Author(s).

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