Fear conditioning is preserved in very preterm-born young adults despite increased anxiety levels

Very preterm birth is associated with an increased risk for anxiety disorders. Abnormal brain development may result in disordered fear learning processes, which may be exacerbated by environmental risk factors and persist in adulthood. We tested the hypotheses that very preterm-born young adults displayed higher levels of fear conditioning, less differentiation between threat (CS+) and safety (CS−) signals, and stronger resistance to extinction relative to term-born controls. A group of 37 very preterm-born young adults and 31 age- and sex-matched term-born controls performed a differential fear conditioning paradigm on two consecutive days. Acquisition and extinction training were performed on day 1. Recall and reinstatement were tested on day 2. Preterm-born participants showed significantly higher levels of anxiety in the Depression-Anxiety-Stress-Scale-21 questionnaire. The fear conditioning outcome measures, skin conductance response amplitudes and anxiety ratings, were overall higher in the preterm-born group compared to controls. Awareness of CS-US contingencies was mildly reduced in preterms. Acquisition, extinction, recall and reinstatement of differential conditioned fear responses (CS+  > CS−), however, were not significantly different between the groups. There were no significant group by stimulus type interactions. The finding of largely preserved associative fear learning in very preterm-born young adults was unexpected and needs to be confirmed in future studies.


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