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Biol Psychol. 2013 Feb;92(2):135-41. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2012.11.004. Epub 2012 Nov 19.

Aversive learning increases sensory detection sensitivity.

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Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, Duke University, 203 Research Drive, Durham, NC 27708, United States.


Increased sensitivity to specific cues in the environment is common in anxiety disorders. This increase in sensory processing can emerge through attention processes that enhance discrimination of a cue from other cues as well as through augmented senses that reduce the absolute intensity of sensory stimulation needed for detection. Whereas it has been established that aversive conditioning can enhance odor quality discrimination, it is not known whether it also changes the absolute threshold at which an odor can be detected. In two separate experiments, we paired one odor of an indistinguishable odor pair with an aversive outcome using a classical conditioning paradigm. Ability to discriminate and to detect the paired odor was assessed before and after conditioning. The results demonstrate that aversive conditioning increases absolute sensory sensitivity to a predictive odor cue in an odor-specific manner, rendering the conditioned odor detectable at a significantly lower (20%) absolute concentration. As animal research has found long-lasting change in behavior and neural signaling resulting from conditioning, absolute threshold was also tested eight weeks later. Detection threshold had returned to baseline level at the eight week follow-up session suggesting that the change in detection threshold was mediated by a transient reorganization. Taken together, we can for the first time demonstrate that increasing the biological salience of a stimulus augments the individual's absolute sensitivity in a stimulus-specific manner outside conscious awareness. These findings provide a unique framework for understanding sensory mechanisms in anxiety disorders as well as further our understanding of mechanisms underlying classical conditioning.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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