Early life adversity increases anxiety in adult rodents and primates, and increases the risk for developing post-traumatic disorder (PTSD) in humans. We hypothesized that early adversity impairs the use of learning signals -negative, aversive prediction errors-to reduce fear in uncertainty. To test this hypothesis, we gave adolescent rats a battery of adverse experiences then assessed adult performance in probabilistic Pavlovian fear conditioning and fear extinction. Rats were confronted with three cues associated with different probabilities of foot shock: one cue never predicted shock, another cue predicted shock with uncertainty, and a final cue always predicted shock. Control rats initially acquired fear to all cues, but rapidly reduced fear to the non-predictive and uncertain cues. Early adversity rats were slower to reduce fear to the non-predictive cue and never fully reduced fear to the uncertain cue. In extinction, all cues were presented in the absence of shock. Fear to the uncertain cue in discrimination, but not early adversity itself, predicted the reduction of fear in extinction. These results demonstrate early adversity impairs the use of negative aversive prediction errors to reduce fear, especially in situations of uncertainty.
Keywords: PTSD; Pavlovian; adolescent; adversity; fear; prediction error; stress.