Background: Thigmotaxis refers to a specific behavior of animals (i.e., to stay close to walls when exploring an open space). Such behavior can be assessed with the open field test (OFT), which is a well-established indicator of animal fear. The detection of similar open field behavior in humans may verify the translational validity of this paradigm. Enhanced thigmotaxis related to anxiety may suggest the relevance of such behavior for anxiety disorders, especially agoraphobia.
Methods: A global positioning system was used to analyze the behavior of 16 patients with agoraphobia and 18 healthy individuals with a risk for agoraphobia (i.e., high anxiety sensitivity) during a human OFT and compare it with appropriate control groups (n = 16 and n = 19). We also tracked 17 patients with agoraphobia and 17 control participants during a city walk that involved walking through an open market square.
Results: Our human OFT triggered thigmotaxis in participants; patients with agoraphobia and participants with high anxiety sensitivity exhibited enhanced thigmotaxis. This behavior was evident in increased movement lengths along the wall of the natural open field and fewer entries into the center of the field despite normal movement speed and length. Furthermore, participants avoided passing through the market square during the city walk, indicating again that thigmotaxis is related to agoraphobia.
Conclusions: This study is the first to our knowledge to verify the translational validity of the OFT and to reveal that thigmotaxis, an evolutionarily adaptive behavior shown by most species, is related to agoraphobia, a pathologic fear of open spaces, and anxiety sensitivity, a risk factor for agoraphobia.
Keywords: Agoraphobia; Animal models; Anxiety sensitivity; Avoidance behavior; Open field test; Thigmotaxis.
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