Perceptual discrimination in fear generalization: Mechanistic and clinical implications

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HighlightsFear generalization is a pathogenic mechanisms in the etiology of anxiety disorders.Pavlovian conditioning protocols with a pure behavioral focus predominate this field.A growing body of research suggests that fear conditioning also influence perception.Learning-related changes in perceptual discriminability could explain generalization.Overlooking perception limits insight into the concept of fear generalization.For almost a century, Pavlovian conditioning is the imperative experimental paradigm to investigate the development and generalization of fear. However, despite the rich research tradition, the conceptualization of fear generalization has remained somewhat ambiguous. In this selective review, we focus explicitly on some challenges with the current operationalization of fear generalization and their impact on the ability to make inferences on its clinical potential and underlying processes. The main conclusion is that, despite the strong evidence that learning influences perception, current research has largely neglected the role of perceptual discriminability and its plasticity in fear generalization. We propose an alternative operationalization of generalization, where the essence is that Pavlovian conditioning itself influences the breadth of fear generalization via learning-related changes in perceptual discriminability. Hence a conceptualization of fear generalization is incomplete without an in-depth analysis of processes of perceptual discriminability. Furthermore, this highlights perceptual learning and discriminability as important future targets for pre-clinical and clinical research.

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