In everyday life, aversive events are usually associated with certain predictive cues. Normally, the acquisition of these contingencies enables organisms to appropriately respond to threat. Presence of a threat cue clearly signals 'danger', whereas absence of such cues signals a period of 'safety'. Failure to identify threat cues may lead to chronic states of anxious apprehension in the context in which the threat has been imminent, which may be instrumental in the pathogenesis of anxiety disorders. In this study, existing data from 150 healthy volunteers in a cue and context virtual reality fear conditioning paradigm were reanalyzed. The aim was to further characterize the impact of cue acquisition and trait anxiety, and of a single nucleotide polymorphism in the serotonin 1A receptor gene (5-HTR1A, rs6295), on cued fear and contextual anxiety before and after fear contingencies were explicitly introduced. Fear conditioned responding was quantified with fear potentiation of the eyeblink startle reflex and subjective fear ratings. First, we replicated previous findings that the inability to identify danger cues during acquisition leads to heightened anxious apprehension in the threat context. Second, in subjects who did not identify the danger cue initially, contextual fear was associated with trait anxiety after the contingencies were explicitly instructed. Third, genetic variability within 5-HTR1A (rs6295) was associated with contextual fear independent of awareness or trait anxiety. These findings confirm that failure to acquire cue contingencies impacts contextual fear responding, in association with trait anxiety. The observed 5-HTR1A effect is in line with models of anxiety, but needs further replication.
Keywords: 5-HTR(1A) C(-1019)G; Context; Fear conditioning; Fear-potentiated startle; Trait anxiety (STAI); rs6295.
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