Fear extinction in traumatized civilians with posttraumatic stress disorder: relation to symptom severity

Biol Psychiatry. 2011 Mar 15;69(6):556-63. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2010.09.013. Epub 2010 Oct 29.


Background: The symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be explained, at least in part, as an inability to inhibit learned fear during conditions of safety. Our group has shown that fear inhibition is impaired in both combat and civilian PTSD populations. On the basis of our earlier findings, we employed an established fear extinction paradigm to further explore fear dysregulation in a civilian traumatized population.

Methods: Fear-potentiated startle (FPS) was examined in 127 trauma-exposed individuals with and without PTSD. We used a protocol in which conditioned fear was first acquired through the presentation of one colored shape (reinforced conditioned stimulus, [CS+]) that was paired with an aversive air blast to the larynx (unconditioned stimulus) and a different colored shape that was not paired to the air blast (nonreinforced condition stimulus). Fear was extinguished 10 min later through repeated presentations of the CSs without reinforcement.

Results: Both groups demonstrated successful fear conditioning on the basis of startle and unconditioned stimulus-expectancy ratings; however, participants with PTSD displayed greater FPS responses to the CS+ and nonreinforced conditioned stimulus compared with the group without PTSD. During fear extinction, the PTSD group showed elevated FPS responses to the previously reinforced CS+ during the early and middle stages of extinction. During the acquisition and extinction phases, PTSD participants with higher levels of reexperiencing symptoms exhibited greater potentiated startle responses to the CS+ compared with PTSD participants with lower reexperiencing symptoms.

Conclusions: These results suggest that PTSD is associated with enhanced fear learning and a greater "fear load" to extinguish after conditioned fear is acquired.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Conditioning, Classical
  • Discrimination, Psychological
  • Extinction, Psychological / physiology*
  • Fear / psychology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Psychometrics / methods
  • Psychophysics / methods
  • Reflex, Startle / physiology
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / physiopathology*
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / psychology*
  • Wounds and Injuries / psychology*