Abstract

Importance:
Anxiety disorders are highly prevalent with an early age of onset. Understanding the aetiology of disorder emergence and recovery is important for establishing preventative measures and optimising treatment. Experimental approaches can serve as a useful model for disorder and recovery relevant processes. One such model is fear conditioning.

Objective:
To determine the degree and extent of overlap between genetic and environmental influences on fear acquisition and extinction as assessed using fear conditioning.

Design:
A twin study in which a fear conditioning paradigm was delivered remotely via the Fear Learning and Anxiety Response (FLARe) smartphone app.

Setting:
Following targeted email recruitment, participants from around the United Kingdom took part in a fear conditioning experiment.

Participants:
Using the FLARe app we collected data from 1937 twins aged 22-25 years, including 538 complete pairs from the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS).

Main Outcomes and Measures:
In the fear acquisition phase participants were exposed to two neutral shape stimuli, one of which was repeatedly paired with a loud aversive noise, while the other was never paired with anything aversive. In the extinction phase the shapes were repeatedly presented again, this time without the aversive noise. Outcomes were participant ratings of how much they expected the aversive noise to occur when they saw either shape, throughout each phase.

Results:
Twin analyses indicated a significant contribution of genetic effects to the initial acquisition and consolidation of fear, and the extinction of fear (15%, 30% and 15% respectively) with the remainder of variance due to the non-shared environment. Multivariate analyses revealed that the development of fear and fear extinction show moderate genetic overlap (genetic correlations .4-.5).

Conclusions and relevance:
Fear acquisition and extinction are heritable, and share some, but not all of the same genetic influences.
Original languageEnglish
JournalPsychological Medicine
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 8 Jun 2021

Keywords

  • Fear conditioning
  • Anxiety
  • Psychological treatment
  • Extinction
  • Twin design
  • Heritability
  • Behavioural genetics

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