The influence of acoustic startle probes on fear learning in humans
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Description: Even though human fear-conditioning involves affective learning as well as expectancy learning, most studies assess only one of the two distinct processes. Commonly used read-outs of associative fear learning are the fear-potentiated startle reflex (FPS), pupil dilation and US-expectancy ratings. FPS is thought to reflect the affective aspect of fear learning, while pupil dilation reflects a general arousal response. However, in order to measure FPS, aversively loud acoustic probes are presented during conditioning, which might in itself exert an effect on fear learning. Here we tested the effect of startle probes on fear learning by comparing brain activation (fMRI), pupil dilation and US-expectancy ratings with and without acoustic startle probes within subjects. Regardless of startle probes, fear conditioning resulted in enhanced dACC, insula and ventral striatum activation. Interaction analyses showed that startle probes diminished differential pupil dilation between CS+ and CS- due to increased pupil responses to CS-. A trend significant interaction effect was observed for US-expectancy and amygdala activation. Startle probes affect differential fear learning by impeding safety learning, as measured with pupil dilation, a read-out of the cognitive component of fear learning. However, we observed no significant effect of acoustic startle probes on other measures of fear learning.