Differential use of danger and safety signals in an animal model of anxiety vulnerability: The behavioral economics of avoidance

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Abstract

Differential processing of danger and safety signals may underlie symptoms of anxiety disorders and posttraumatic stress disorder. One symptom common to these disorders is pathological avoidance. The present study examined whether danger and safety signals influence avoidance differently in anxiety-vulnerable Wistar-Kyoto (WKY) rats and Sprague Dawley (SD) rats. SD and WKY rats were tested in a novel progressive ratio avoidance task with and without danger or safety signals. Two components of reinforcement, hedonic value and motivation, were determined by fitting an exponentiated demand equation to the data. Hedonic value of avoidance did not differ between SD and WKY rats, but WKY rats had greater motivation to avoid than SD rats. Removal of the safety signal reduced motivation to avoid in SD, but not WKY, rats. Removal of the danger signal did not alter avoidance in either strain. When danger and safety signals were presented simultaneously, WKY rats responded to the danger signals, whereas SD rats responded to the safety signal. The results provide evidence that 1) safety signals enhance motivation to avoid in SD rats, 2) both danger and safety signals influence motivation in WKY rats, and 3) danger signals take precedence over safety signals when presented simultaneously in WKY rats. Thus, anxiety vulnerability is associated with preferential use of danger signals to motivate avoidance. The differential use of danger and safety signals has important implications for the etiology and treatment of pathological avoidance in anxiety disorders and posttraumatic stress disorder.

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