Unconditioned Response to a Naturally Aversive Stimulus is Associated with Sensitized Defensive Responding and Self-Reported Fearful Traits in a PTSD Sample Public Deposited

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  • Unconditioned responding (UCR) to a naturally aversive stimulus is associated with defensive responding to a conditioned threat cue (CS+) and a conditioned safety cue (CS-) in trauma-exposed individuals during fear acquisition. However, the relationships of UCR with defensive responding during extinction training, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptom severity, and fearful traits in trauma-exposed individuals are not known. In a sample of 100 trauma-exposed adults with a continuum of PTSD severity, we recorded startle responses and skin conductance responses (SCR) during fear acquisition and extinction training using a 140 psi, 250-ms air blast to the larynx as the unconditioned stimulus. We explored dimensional associations of two different measures of UCR (unconditioned startle and unconditioned SCR) with conditioned defensive responding to CS+ and CS-, conditioned fear (CS+ minus CS-), PTSD symptom severity, and a measure of fearful traits (composite of fear survey schedule, anxiety sensitivity index, and Connor-Davidson resilience scale). Unconditioned startle was positively associated with startle potentiation to the threat cue and the safety cue across both learning phases (CS+ Acquisition, CS- Acquisition, CS+ Extinction Training, CS- Extinction Training) and with fearful traits. Unconditioned SCR was positively associated with SCR to the CS+ and CS- and SCR difference score during Acquisition. Neither type of UCR was associated with PTSD symptom severity. Our findings suggest that UCR, particularly unconditioned startle to a naturally aversive stimulus, may inform research on biomarkers and treatment targets for symptoms of pervasive and persistent fear in trauma-exposed individuals.
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  • We are grateful to our research participants and the technologists at the McLean Imaging Center. We also thank Emily Casteen, Caroline Ostrand, and Sydney Jobson for their help with data collection.
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  • 1469-8986



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