Animal studies suggest that time delay between acquisition and retrieval of contextual anxiety increases generalization. Moreover, such generalization is prevented by preexposure to the context (CTX), presumably due to an improved representation of such context. We investigated whether preexposure and time-passing modulate generalization of contextual anxiety, in humans. On Day 1, 42 participants (preexposure group) explored two virtual offices, while 41 participants (no-preexposure group) explored a virtual stadium. On Day 2 (24 h later), all participants learned to associate one office (CTX+) with unpredictable unconditioned stimuli (USs), and another office (CTX2) with safety. On Day 3, either 24 h (recent test) or 2 wk (remote test) later, participants revisited CTX2 and CTX+ without USs, as well as a generalization context (G-CTX). Results revealed successfully conditioned anxiety and anxiety generalization for ratings (G-CTX was as aversive as CTX+ was), while safety generalization was found for startle responses (G-CTX elicited startle attenuation as CTX2 did). Time between learning and testing enhanced generalization as reflected by comparable startle responses to all three offices in the remote test. Contextual preexposure facilitated extinction of explicit conditioned anxiety assessed with ratings. These results suggest that memory trace of a context degrades with passage of time in humans like in animals and, consequently, anxiety generalization enhances. After context preexposure, high cognitive processes seem to be crucially involved in facilitating extinction (or safety) learning.,
Learning & Memory (Print)
Department of Psychology

Andreatta, M., Neueder, D., Glotzbach-Schoon, E., Muehlberger, A., & Pauli, P. (2017). Effects of context pre-exposure and delay until anxiety retrieval on generalization of contextual anxiety. Learning & Memory (Print), 24, 43–54. doi:10.1101/lm.044073.116