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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 Mar 15;108(11):4500-5. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1005494108. Epub 2011 Feb 23.

Distinct neural signatures of threat learning in adolescents and adults.

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Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 3UD, United Kingdom.


Most teenage fears subside with age, a change that may reflect brain maturation in the service of refined fear learning. Whereas adults clearly demarcate safe situations from real dangers, attenuating fear to the former but not the latter, adolescents' immaturity in prefrontal cortex function may limit their ability to form clear-cut threat categories, allowing pervasive fears to manifest. Here we developed a discrimination learning paradigm that assesses the ability to categorize threat from safety cues to test these hypotheses on age differences in neurodevelopment. In experiment 1, we first demonstrated the capacity of this paradigm to generate threat/safety discrimination learning in both adolescents and adults. Next, in experiment 2, we used this paradigm to compare the behavioral and neural correlates of threat/safety discrimination learning in adolescents and adults using functional MRI. This second experiment yielded three sets of findings. First, when labeling threats online, adolescents reported less discrimination between threat and safety cues than adults. Second, adolescents were more likely than adults to engage early-maturing subcortical structures during threat/safety discrimination learning. Third, adults' but not adolescents' engagement of late-maturing prefrontal cortex regions correlated positively with fear ratings during threat/safety discrimination learning. These data are consistent with the role of dorsolateral regions during category learning, particularly when differences between stimuli are subtle [Miller EK, Cohen JD (2001) Annu Rev Neurosci 24:167-202]. These findings suggest that maturational differences in subcortical and prefrontal regions between adolescent and adult brains may relate to age-related differences in threat/safety discrimination.

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