Acquisition, extinction, and return of fear in veterans in intensive outpatient prolonged exposure therapy: A fear-potentiated startle study

Published: May 25, 2022 – DOI:
Authored By:
Jessica Maples-Keller, Laura E. Watkins, K. Maria Nylocks, Carly Yasinski, Callan Coghlan, Kathryn Black, Tanja Jovanovic, Sheila A.M. Rauch, Barbara O. Rothbaum, Seth Davin Norrholm
Prolonged exposure (PE) therapy is a first-line treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and involves repeated presentation of trauma-related cues without aversive outcomes. A primary learning mechanism of PE is fear extinction (new learning that a dangerous cue is now safe) and its retention (maintaining this new learning over time). Extant research suggests extinction is impaired in PTSD patients. In this study, we employed an established fear-potentiated startle-based paradigm to examine fear acquisition, extinction learning and retention before and after completion of intensive outpatient treatment. First, PTSD patients undergoing PE (n = 55) were compared to trauma-exposed patients without PTSD (n = 57). We identified excessive fear in PTSD patients during acquisition and extinction before treatment compared to non-PTSD patients. At post-treatment, we examined the return of fear after extinction in PTSD patients showing high or low treatment response to PE (≥50% change in PTSD symptom severity vs. < 50%). High PE responders maintained fear extinction learning whereas low PE responders showed significant return of fear at post-treatment. These results replicate and extend previous findings of impaired extinction in PTSD and provide support for the proposed theoretical link between fear extinction and PE response.
Published in:
Behaviour Research and Therapy

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