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Emotional learning and extinction:
integration of central and peripheral neural correlates

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Emotional learning and anxiety

A study combined and shared scientific expertise to shed more light on the dysfunctional aspects of anxiety disorders.

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Anxiety disorders are known to be the most frequent psychiatric disorders. An EU-funded project, EMOLEARN (Emotional learning and extinction: Integration of central and peripheral neural correlates), investigated this mental disorder. Researching fear and fear learning, EMOLEARN looked at MultiCS conditioning, which involves affective categories of similar and complex stimuli. By using time-sensitive magnetoencephalography (MEG), the study revealed enhanced activation of prefrontal cortex regions towards emotionally paired versus neutral stimuli already during short-latency processing stages. Patients suffering from anxiety disorders show anomalies in classical conditioning that may either result from, or provide a risk factor for, clinically relevant anxiety. The study examined whether healthy participants with enhanced anxiety vulnerability show abnormalities in a challenging affective conditioning paradigm, comprised of multiple stimulus-reinforcement associations that had to be acquired with only a few learning trials. Emotional learning was measured via evaluative, behavioural and neurophysiological measures acquired before, during and after learning. Investigating central and autonomous nervous system correlates of conditioned stimulus (CS) processing in classical conditioning paradigms is difficult and challenging to accomplish simultaneously. As a solution, EMOLEARN used MultiCS conditioning with 48 participants. The number of CSs was increased and the number of learning trials was decreased. Additionally, trials of short and long durations were used to meet requirements of simultaneous electroencephalography-electrodermal activity recordings in a differential aversive conditioning task. Schizophrenia exhibits abnormalities in the perception and identification of emotions. EMOLEARN examined this by recording early auditory evoked field components via time-sensitive whole-head MEG in response to a variety of emotion-associated tones. The study included 17 patients with schizophrenia and 17 healthy, matched controls. Findings suggest impairments in the prioritisation of emotionally salient versus non-relevant stimuli in patients with schizophrenia. Dysfunctions in higher cognitive processes and behaviour in schizophrenia might therefore reflect dysfunctions on fundamental, early auditory emotion processing stages. Research achievements provide a foundation for first clinical application of the MultiCS conditioning paradigm in patients suffering from schizophrenia.

Keywords

Emotional learning, anxiety disorders, EMOLEARN, MultiCS conditioning, schizophrenia

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Scientific advances
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9 September 2019