April 12, 2021

Impaired differential learning of fear versus safety signs in obsessive-compulsive disorder

Pavlovian learning mechanisms are of great importance both for models of psychiatric disorders and treatment approaches, but understudied in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Using an established Pavlovian fear conditioning and reversal procedure, we studied skin conductance responses (SCRs) in 41 patients with OCD and in 32 matched healthy control participants. Within both groups, fear acquisition and reversal effects were evident. When comparing groups, patients showed impaired differential learning of threatening and safe stimuli, consistent with previous research. In contrast to prior findings, differential learning impairments were restricted to fear acquisition, and not observed in the reversal stage of the experiment. As previous and present fear reversal experiments in OCD differed in the use of color coding to facilitate stimulus discrimination, the studies converge to suggest that differential learning of threatening versus safe stimuli is impaired in OCD, but manifests itself differently depending on the difficulty of the association to be learned. When supported by the addition of color, patients with OCD previously appeared to acquire an association early but failed to reverse it according to changed contingencies. In absence of such color coding of stimuli, our data suggest that patients with OCD already show differential learning impairments during fear acquisition, which may relate to findings of altered coping with uncertainty previously observed in OCD. Impaired differential learning of threatening versus safe stimuli should be studied further in OCD, in order to determine whether impairments in differential learning predict CBT treatment outcomes in patients, and whether they are etiologically relevant for OCD.

 bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience

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