Exposure to violence and neglect images differentially influences fear learning and extinction.Biol Psychol. 2020 03; 151:107832.BP
The mechanisms by which exposure to adversity contributes to psychopathology development are poorly understood. Recent models link experiences of threat of harm and deprivation to psychopathology via disruptions in learning mechanisms underlying fear acquisition and extinction. We empirically tested dimensional elements of this model, by examining whether exposure to images of community violence or neglect differentially influenced fear learning and extinction relative to exposure to neutral images. Participants were randomly allocated to one of three exposure conditions: viewing images depicting neglect (n = 25), violence (n = 25) or control images (n = 24). All participants then completed a fear conditioning and extinction task in which the CS+ was paired with an aversive tone, and the CS- was presented alone during conditioning. Both CSs were presented alone during extinction and extinction retest. Skin conductance responses (SCR) and subjective ratings were assessed. Relative to control images, viewing scenes of neglect attenuated SCRs to the CSs during conditioning, extinction and extinction retest. Exposure to images of community violence accentuated SCRs during US anticipation on CS+ trials and impaired the retention of safety learning (larger SCRs to the CS+ compared to the CS- at retest and the CS+ at the end of extinction). No significant group differences emerged in subjective ratings. Findings lend preliminary support for suggestions that adverse experiences may be linked to impairments in fear and safety learning and provide key evidence suggesting that the expression of these impairments may differ as a function of the type of adversity.