Danger and safety signals independently influence persistent pathological avoidance in anxiety-vulnerable Wistar Kyoto rats: A role for impaired configural learning in anxiety vulnerability

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Abstract

Pathological avoidance behavior in anxiety and anxiety-related disorders has a large role in the persistence and severity of disease. Individuals are cued to avoid potential aversive events by learned danger and safety signals in the environment. Individuals with anxiety demonstrate a bias to utilize danger signals more than safety signals, in contrast to those without these disorders. Therefore, the present study investigated if danger and safety signals differentially influenced persistent avoidance in an animal model of anxiety-vulnerability, the Wistar Kyoto (WKY) rat, relative to the outbred Sprague Dawley (SD) rat. Persistent avoidance was assessed using extinction protocols. When danger or safety signals were present during extinction, WKY rats were slower to extinguish the avoidance response compared to SD rats. In contrast, when danger and safety signals were both present during extinction, WKY and SD rats extinguished at a similar rate. Differences in contextual and configural learning were explored as potential causes of the strain differences in the use of safety and danger signals in avoidance extinction. Strains did not differ in avoidance extinction when context was manipulated. However, WKY rats were impaired in configural learning using a negative patterning task. The results indicate that danger and safety signals may impair avoidance extinction in anxiety-vulnerable individuals due to impaired configural learning. These findings have important implications for understanding the etiology of anxiety disorders and may improve their diagnosis and treatment.

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