Impaired eyeblink (EB) classical conditioning using a delay paradigm has previously been shown in combat veterans, as well as in a group of depressed adults, compared to normal individuals. Significant deficits in immediate memory (IM) in combat PTSD+ veterans, compared to normal controls, have also been previously shown, but these differences became non-significant after controlling for level of self-reported depression. Furthermore, EB conditioning has been shown to be significantly correlated with heart rate variability (HRV) in normal adults. The present study examined how depression (self-reported), IM, and resting HRV are related to discriminative delay classical EB conditioning in veterans with and without PTSD.
Three groups of subjects (combat PTSD+, combat PTSD-, and non-combat PTSD-) were assessed for self-report of depression and anxiety, as well as IM and HRV. Subjects received a single session of discriminative EB classical conditioning in which the conditioned stimulus (CS) was a light signal (either red or green) compounded with a tone. On CS+ trials, the light-tone compound stimulus co-terminated with a corneal airpuff (unconditioned stimulus, US), thus producing a delay paradigm. On CS- trials the appropriate light-tone stimulus was presented but not followed by the airpuff US. EB amplitude and frequency were recorded.
PTSD+ subjects had greater self-reported depression and anxiety scores than the two control groups, as well as lower scores on a measure of IM. However, the IM difference was not significant after the effects of self-reported depression and anxiety were controlled. EB CR amplitude was significantly greater to CS+ than CS- for all three groups. EB amplitude to both the US (airpuff) and the CS+ declined over trials, but was significantly lower in the combat PTSD+ group compared to the combined PTSD- groups. Subjects who reached an EB CR acquisition criterion had significantly greater scores on IM than those who did not reach criterion. Factor analysis of the entire data set revealed four factors corresponding to (1) self-reported depression and anxiety, (2) IM, (3) HRV, and (4) EB amplitude. EB frequency was significantly predicted by IM and HRV.
These data extend our previous results by showing deficits in EB conditioning among combat PTSD+ veterans that were associated with lower IM and resting HRV, but were not associated with self-report of depression.