Many researchers approach the etiology of trauma-, stressor-, and anxiety-related mental disorders from the perspective of classical conditioning processes gone awry. According to this view, abnormal associative relationships between neutral, conditioned stimuli (CSs) and aversive, unconditioned stimuli (USs) underlie pathological anxiety and result in unusually intense fear memories or fear memories that cannot be properly extinguished. Recent work has expanded this view by showing that many psychological disorders involving pathological anxiety are associated with an exaggerated form of the commonly adaptive classical conditioning phenomenon, stimulus generalization, leading individuals with such disorders to respond with fear and anxiety to a variety of environmental contexts and cues that should not be threatening. Few studies have been conducted in humans to better understand the process of fear generalization, and factors that might influence susceptibility to overgeneralize fear have yet to be assessed. It is well-known that stress, biological sex, and anxiety-related dispositions of an individual increase one's susceptibility for pathological anxiety and significantly impact fear learning; thus, it is possible that such factors, alone or in combination, contribute to clinical anxiety by influencing fear generalization processes.
Aim 1 of the present study is to determine the effects of acute stress and its physiological correlates on fear generalization in human participants. Because acute stress profoundly impacts cognitive brain areas that underlie generalization, it is predicted that acute stress will enhance or impair fear generalization, depending on when the stressor is administered relative to fear learning.
Aim 2 is to assess the role of biological sex in fear generalization and acute stress-induced changes in such processes. Females are more likely than males to develop several psychological disorders that involve pathological anxiety, and research has consistently reported sex-related differences in fear learning and stress-induced alterations of fear learning, effects that have been associated with ovarian hormones. Thus, it is predicted that females will exhibit greater fear generalization than males that will be impacted differently by stress. It is also hypothesized that the observed effects will correlate with estradiol and progesterone in females.
The final aim of this project (Aim 3) is to evaluate the relationship between childhood stress, dispositional anxiety, and fear generalization. Early life stress has been repeatedly associated with altered stress responses and the development of anxiety-related phenotypes, yet the influence of childhood stress and trait anxiety on fear generalization have yet to be examined. This study will be the first to examine how several factors that are known to increase susceptibility for trauma-, stressor, and anxiety-related psychological disorders impact fear generalization in human subjects. The resulting findings will provide important insight into the etiology of such disorders, which could aid future approaches to their treatment.

Public Health Relevance

Many individuals with trauma-, stressor-, and anxiety-related psychological disorders overgeneralize fear and anxiety responses to environmental contexts and cues that should not be threatening. In the present study, the impact of well-known risk factors for such disorders (stress, biological sex, anxiety-related dispositions) on fear generalization will be examined. Findings from this study may provide insight into how these risk factors influence the development and/or maintenance of psychological disorders that involve overgeneralization of fear and could facilitate future approaches to their treatment.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
Academic Research Enhancement Awards (AREA) (R15)
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Biobehavioral Mechanisms of Emotion, Stress and Health Study Section (MESH)
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Prabhakar, Janani
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Ohio Northern University
Schools of Arts and Sciences
United States
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