Neural correlates of conceptual-level fear generalization in posttraumatic stress disorder.

Journal Article (Journal Article)

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may develop when mechanisms for making accurate distinctions about threat relevance have gone awry. Generalization across conceptually related objects has been hypothesized based on clinical observation in PTSD, but the neural mechanisms remain unexplored. Recent trauma-exposed military veterans (n = 46) were grouped into PTSD (n = 23) and non-PTSD (n = 23). Participants learned to generalize fear across conceptual categories (animals or tools) of semantically related items that were partially reinforced by shock during functional magnetic resonance imaging. Conditioned fear learning was quantified by shock expectancy and skin conductance response (SCR). Relative to veteran controls, PTSD subjects exhibited a stronger neural response associated with fear generalization to the reinforced object category in the striatum, anterior cingulate cortex, amygdala, occipitotemporal cortex, and insula (Z > 2.3; p < 0.05; whole-brain corrected). Based on SCR, both groups generalized the shock contingency to the reinforced conceptual category, but learning was not significantly different between groups. We found that PTSD was associated with an enhanced neural response in fronto-limbic, midline, and occipitotemporal regions to a learned representation of threat that is based on previously established conceptual knowledge of the relationship between basic-level exemplars within a semantic category. Behaviorally, veterans with PTSD were somewhat slower to differentiate threat and safety categories as compared with trauma-exposed veteran controls owing in part to an initial overgeneralized behavioral response to the safe category. These results have implications for understanding how fear spreads across semantically related concepts in PTSD.

Full Text

Duke Authors

Cited Authors

  • Morey, RA; Haswell, CC; Stjepanović, D; Mid-Atlantic MIRECC Workgroup,, ; Dunsmoor, JE; LaBar, KS

Published Date

  • July 2020

Published In

Volume / Issue

  • 45 / 8

Start / End Page

  • 1380 - 1389

PubMed ID

  • 32222725

Pubmed Central ID

  • PMC7297719

Electronic International Standard Serial Number (EISSN)

  • 1740-634X

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

  • 10.1038/s41386-020-0661-8


  • eng

Conference Location

  • England