The ability to determine why only certain individuals known to be at increased risk for the development of anxiety disorders (anxiety vulnerable individuals) go on to develop clinical anxiety is a critical issue to individuals debilitated by these disorders as well as for the public health care system at large. The Eyeblink unit that was built to address this issue for a proposed study at Rutgers University. The study (classical conditioning with picture stimuli and recording of HR) that has been proposed will determine how negative bias in anxiety vulnerability facilitates associative learning and how this bias causes a failure to discriminate between neutral and negative outcomes, which likely promotes and perpetuates anxiety psychopathology.
About the Research Study:
Classical eyeblink conditioning is a well-established tool used for assessing basic sensorimotor learning. The behavior is robust and easily measured, and the neural substrates mediating acquisition and maintenance of the conditioned response are precisely delineated . In preliminary studies that were conducted, classical eyeblink conditioning was assessed (with no pictures presented). Participants were divided into three groups based on self-reported anxiety scores. Results from this study reveal that anxiety vulnerability (people scoring high on anxiety questionnaires) was associated with increased rates of conditioned response acquisition.
In this preliminary study, there were no manipulations of stimulus valence (ex. positive negative neutral pictures) or measures of sympathetic activity (HR/ECG). Therefore, it is unknown how these features are influencing associative learning in anxiety vulnerable individuals. Since anxiety vulnerable individuals are known to display attentional hypervigilance to threat-related stimuli as well as increased basal sympathetic tone, the current study (with pictures) was designed to assess sympathetic activation and associative learning to understand how anxiety vulnerable individuals process positive, neutral, and negative stimuli (the pictures that are shown) while learning a simple associative task (eyeblink conditioning).