Brain Structure Correlates of Individual Differences in the Acquisition and Inhibition of Conditioned Fear


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Abstract

Research employing aversive conditioning paradigms has elucidated the neurocircuitry involved in acquiring and diminishing fear responses. However, the factors underlying individual differences in fear acquisition and inhibition are not presently well understood. In this study, we explored whether the magnitude of individuals' acquired fear responses and the modulation of these responses via 2 fear reduction methods were correlated with structural differences in brain regions involved in affective processing. Physiological and structural magnetic resonance imaging data were obtained from experiments exploring extinction retention and intentional cognitive regulation. Our results identified 2 regions in which individual variation in brain structure correlated with subjects' fear-related arousal. Confirming previous results, increased thickness in ventromedial prefrontal cortex was correlated with the degree of extinction retention. Additionally, subjects with greater thickness in the posterior insula exhibited larger conditioned responses during acquisition. The data suggest a trend toward a negative correlation between amygdala volume and fear acquisition magnitude. There was no significant correlation between fear reduction via cognitive regulation and thickness in our prefrontal regions of interest. Acquisition and regulation measures were uncorrelated, suggesting that while certain individuals may have a propensity toward increased expression of conditioned fear, these responses can be diminished via both extinction and cognitive regulation.

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