Persistent adult anxiety disorders often begin in adolescence. As emphasis on early treatment grows, we need a better understanding of how adolescent anxiety develops. In the current study, we used a fear conditioning paradigm to identify disruptions in cue and context threat-learning in 19 high anxious (HA) and 24 low anxious (LA) adolescents (12-17years). We presented three neutral female faces (conditioned stimulus, CS) in three contingent relations with an unconditioned stimulus (UCS, a shrieking female scream) in three virtual room contexts. The degree of contingency between the CSs and the UCSs varied across the rooms: in the predictable scream condition, the scream followed the face on 100% of trials; in the unpredictable scream condition, the scream and face appeared randomly and independently of each other; in the no-scream condition the CS was presented in the absence of any UCS. We found that the LA adolescents showed higher levels of fear-potentiated startle to the faces relative to the rooms. This difference was independent of the contingency condition. The HA adolescents showed non-differential startle between the CSs, but, in contrast to previous adult data, across both cue types displayed lowest startle to the unpredictable condition and highest startle to the no-scream condition. Our study is the first to examine context conditioning in adolescents, and our results suggest that high trait anxiety early in development may be associated with an inability to disambiguate the signalling roles of cues and contexts, and a mislabelling of safety or ambiguous signals.
Keywords: Adolescence; Anxiety; Context conditioning; Development; Individual differences.
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