Facilitated acquisition of the classically conditioned eyeblink response in active duty military expressing posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms

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Abstract

Objective:

Learning diathesis models underscore the role of hyper-conditioning in the development of PTSD following trauma exposure. Eyeblink classical conditioning is one method of examining associative learning biases independent of fear and threat produced by trauma. Facilitated learning is apparent in individuals self-expressing PTSD symptoms, as well as behaviorally inhibited (BI) temperament, a vulnerability factor for PTSD. Here, we examine eyeblink conditioning in active duty military personnel and relate learning with PTSD symptomology.

Method:

Volunteers were 83 active duty United States Coast Guard personnel (18 females) recruited from small boat stations. Personnel were administered the PTSD Checklist (PCL) to assess current PTSD symptoms using DSM-IV criteria. BI temperament was assessed with the Adult Measure of Behavioural Inhibition (AMBI). Eyeblink conditioning was conducted using a partial reinforcement schedule, whereby paired trials (500-ms pure tone conditioned stimulus co-terminating with a 50-ms air-puff unconditional stimulus) were interpolated with 50% CS-alone trials.

Results:

Consistent with previous work, there was a high degree of concordance between BI and incidence of PTSD. Further, PTSD was associated with faster learning during the acquisition period, with conditioned responding sustained through the extinction period.

Conclusions:

These results reinforce the relationship between BI and PTSD in an active duty military sample, supporting previous observations in veteran and civilian samples. The conditioning data are consistent with predictions derived from a learning diathesis model of stress and anxiety, suggesting facilitated associative learning may represent an additional vulnerability for the development and maintenance of stress-related pathology.

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