A Twin Study of the Genetics of Fear Conditioning
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BACKGROUND: Fear conditioning is a traditional model for the acquisition of fears and phobias. Studies of the genetic architecture of fear conditioning may inform gene-finding strategies for anxiety disorders. The objective of this study was to determine the genetic and environmental sources of individual differences in fear conditioning by means of a twin sample. METHODS: Classic fear conditioning data were experimentally obtained from 173 same-sex twin pairs (90 monozygotic and 83 dizygotic). Sequences of evolutionary fear-relevant (snakes and spiders) and fear-irrelevant (circles and triangles) pictorial stimuli served as conditioned stimuli paired with a mild electric shock serving as the unconditioned stimulus. The outcome measure was the electrodermal skin conductance response. We applied structural equation modeling methods to the 3 conditioning phases of habituation, acquisition, and extinction to determine the extent to which genetic and environmental factors underlie individual variation in associative and nonassociative learning. RESULTS: All components of the fear conditioning process in humans demonstrated moderate heritability, in the range of 35% to 45%. Best-fitting multivariate models suggest that 2 sets of genes may underlie the trait of fear conditioning: one that most strongly affects nonassociative processes of habituation that also is shared with acquisition and extinction, and a second that appears related to associative fear conditioning processes. In addition, these data provide tentative evidence of differences in heritability based on the fear relevance of the stimuli. CONCLUSION: Genes represent a significant source of individual variation in the habituation, acquisition, and extinction of fears, and genetic effects specific to fear conditioning are involved.
author list (cited authors)
Hettema, J. M., Annas, P., Neale, M. C., Kendler, K. S., & Fredrikson, M.