Publications by authors named "Julia Wendt"

35 Publications

Cortical thickness and resting-state cardiac function across the lifespan: A cross-sectional pooled mega-analysis.

Psychophysiology 2020 Oct 10. Epub 2020 Oct 10.

Norwegian Centre for Mental Disorders Research (NORMENT), Institute of Clinical Medicine, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway.

Understanding the association between autonomic nervous system [ANS] function and brain morphology across the lifespan provides important insights into neurovisceral mechanisms underlying health and disease. Resting-state ANS activity, indexed by measures of heart rate [HR] and its variability [HRV] has been associated with brain morphology, particularly cortical thickness [CT]. While findings have been mixed regarding the anatomical distribution and direction of the associations, these inconsistencies may be due to sex and age differences in HR/HRV and CT. Previous studies have been limited by small sample sizes, which impede the assessment of sex differences and aging effects on the association between ANS function and CT. To overcome these limitations, 20 groups worldwide contributed data collected under similar protocols of CT assessment and HR/HRV recording to be pooled in a mega-analysis (N = 1,218 (50.5% female), mean age 36.7 years (range: 12-87)). Findings suggest a decline in HRV as well as CT with increasing age. CT, particularly in the orbitofrontal cortex, explained additional variance in HRV, beyond the effects of aging. This pattern of results may suggest that the decline in HRV with increasing age is related to a decline in orbitofrontal CT. These effects were independent of sex and specific to HRV; with no significant association between CT and HR. Greater CT across the adult lifespan may be vital for the maintenance of healthy cardiac regulation via the ANS-or greater cardiac vagal activity as indirectly reflected in HRV may slow brain atrophy. Findings reveal an important association between CT and cardiac parasympathetic activity with implications for healthy aging and longevity that should be studied further in longitudinal research.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/psyp.13688DOI Listing
October 2020

Promoting long-term inhibition of human fear responses by non-invasive transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation during extinction training.

Sci Rep 2020 01 30;10(1):1529. Epub 2020 Jan 30.

University of Greifswald, Department of Physiological and Clinical Psychology/Psychotherapy, Franz-Mehring-Strasse 47, 17487, Greifswald, Germany.

Inhibiting fear-related thoughts and defensive behaviors when they are no longer appropriate to the situation is a prerequisite for flexible and adaptive responding to changing environments. Such inhibition of defensive systems is mediated by ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), limbic basolateral amygdala (BLA), and brain stem locus-coeruleus noradrenergic system (LC-NAs). Non-invasive, transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation (tVNS) has shown to activate this circuit. Using a multiple-day single-cue fear conditioning and extinction paradigm, we investigated long-term effects of tVNS on inhibition of low-level amygdala modulated fear potentiated startle and cognitive risk assessments. We found that administration of tVNS during extinction training facilitated inhibition of fear potentiated startle responses and cognitive risk assessments, resulting in facilitated formation, consolidation and long-term recall of extinction memory, and prevention of the return of fear. These findings might indicate new ways to increase the efficacy of exposure-based treatments of anxiety disorders.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-58412-wDOI Listing
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6992620PMC
January 2020

Effects of verbal instructions and physical threat removal prior to extinction training on the return of conditioned fear.

Sci Rep 2020 Jan 27;10(1):1202. Epub 2020 Jan 27.

Department of Psychology, University of Greifswald, Greifswald, Germany.

Instructions given prior to extinction training facilitate the extinction of conditioned skin conductance (SCRs) and fear-potentiated startle responses (FPSs) and serve as laboratory models for cognitive interventions implemented in exposure-based treatments of pathological anxiety. Here, we investigated how instructions given prior to extinction training, with or without the additional removal of the electrode used to deliver the unconditioned stimulus (US), affect the return of fear assessed 24 hours later. We replicated previous instruction effects on extinction and added that the additional removal of the US electrode slightly enhanced facilitating effects on the extinction of conditioned FPSs. In contrast, extinction instructions hardly affected the return of conditioned fear responses. These findings suggest that instruction effects observed during extinction training do not extent to tests of return of fear 24 hours later which serve as laboratory models of relapse and improvement stability of exposure-based treatments.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-57934-7DOI Listing
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6985120PMC
January 2020

Behavioral and neural evidence of enhanced long-term memory for untrustworthy faces.

Sci Rep 2019 12 16;9(1):19217. Epub 2019 Dec 16.

Department of Biological and Clinical Psychology, University of Greifswald, Greifswald, Germany.

In daily life, we automatically form impressions of other individuals on basis of subtle facial features that convey trustworthiness. Because these face-based judgements influence current and future social interactions, we investigated how perceived trustworthiness of faces affects long-term memory using event-related potentials (ERPs). In the current study, participants incidentally viewed 60 neutral faces differing in trustworthiness, and one week later, performed a surprise recognition memory task, in which the same old faces were presented intermixed with novel ones. We found that after one week untrustworthy faces were better recognized than trustworthy faces and that untrustworthy faces prompted early (350-550 ms) enhanced frontal ERP old/new differences (larger positivity for correctly remembered old faces, compared to novel ones) during recognition. Our findings point toward an enhanced long-lasting, likely familiarity-based, memory for untrustworthy faces. Even when trust judgments about a person do not necessarily need to be accurate, a fast access to memories predicting potential harm may be important to guide social behaviour in daily life.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-55705-7DOI Listing
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6915708PMC
December 2019

Navigating the garden of forking paths for data exclusions in fear conditioning research.

Elife 2019 12 16;8. Epub 2019 Dec 16.

Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, Department of Cognitive Psychology, Ruhr University Bochum, Bochum, Germany.

In this report, we illustrate the considerable impact of researcher degrees of freedom with respect to exclusion of participants in paradigms with a learning element. We illustrate this empirically through case examples from human fear conditioning research, in which the exclusion of 'non-learners' and 'non-responders' is common - despite a lack of consensus on how to define these groups. We illustrate the substantial heterogeneity in exclusion criteria identified in a systematic literature search and highlight the potential problems and pitfalls of different definitions through case examples based on re-analyses of existing data sets. On the basis of these studies, we propose a consensus on evidence-based rather than idiosyncratic criteria, including clear guidelines on reporting details. Taken together, we illustrate how flexibility in data collection and analysis can be avoided, which will benefit the robustness and replicability of research findings and can be expected to be applicable to other fields of research that involve a learning element.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.52465DOI Listing
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6989118PMC
December 2019

The Neurofunctional Basis of Affective Startle Modulation in Humans: Evidence From Combined Facial Electromyography and Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging.

Biol Psychiatry 2020 03 6;87(6):548-558. Epub 2019 Aug 6.

Department of Systems Neuroscience, University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, Hamburg, Germany.

Background: The startle eye-blink is the cross-species translational tool to study defensive behavior in affective neuroscience with relevance to a broad range of neuropsychiatric conditions. It makes use of the startle reflex, a defensive response elicited by an immediate, unexpected sensory event, which is potentiated when evoked during threat and inhibited during safety. In contrast to skin conductance responses or pupil dilation, modulation of the startle reflex is valence specific. Rodent models implicate a modulatory pathway centering on the brainstem (i.e., nucleus reticularis pontis caudalis) and the centromedial amygdala as key hubs for flexibly integrating valence information into differential startle magnitude. Technical advances now allow for the investigation of this pathway using combined facial electromyography and functional magnetic resonance imaging in humans.

Methods: We employed a multimethodological approach combining trial-by-trial facial eye-blink startle electromyography and brainstem- and amygdala-specific functional magnetic resonance imaging in humans. Validating the robustness and reproducibility of our findings, we provide evidence from two different paradigms (fear-potentiated startle, affect-modulated startle) in two independent studies (N = 43 and N = 55).

Results: We provide key evidence for a conserved neural pathway for acoustic startle modulation between humans and rodents. Furthermore, we provide the crucial direct link between electromyography startle eye-blink magnitude and neural response strength. Finally, we demonstrate a dissociation between arousal-specific amygdala responding and triggered valence-specific amygdala responding.

Conclusions: We provide neurobiologically based evidence for the strong translational value of startle responding and argue that startle-evoked amygdala responding and its affective modulation may hold promise as an important novel tool for affective neuroscience and its clinical translation.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2019.07.028DOI Listing
March 2020

Enhanced spontaneous retrieval of cues from emotional events: An ERP study.

Biol Psychol 2019 11 20;148:107742. Epub 2019 Aug 20.

Department of Psychology, University of Potsdam, Potsdam, Germany. Electronic address:

Recent evidence points to enhanced episodic memory retrieval not only for emotional items but also for neutral information encoded in emotional contexts. However, prior research only tested instructed explicit recognition, and hence here we investigated whether memory retrieval is also heightened for cues from emotional contexts when retrieval is not explicitly probed. During the first session of a two-session experiment, neutral objects were presented on different background scenes varying in emotional and neutral contents. One week later, objects were presented again (with no background) intermixed with novel objects. In both sessions, participants were instructed to attentively watch the stimuli (free viewing procedure), and during the second session, ERPs were also collected to measure the ERP Old/New effect, an electrophysiological correlate of episodic memory retrieval. Analyses were performed using cluster-based permutation tests in order to identify reliable spatio-temporal ERP differences. Based on this approach, old relative to new objects, were associated with larger ERP positivity in an early (364-744 ms) and late time window (760-1148 ms) over distinct central electrode clusters. Interestingly, significant late ERP Old/New differences were only observed for objects previously encoded with emotional, but not neutral scenes (504 to 1144 ms). Because these ERP differences were observed in a non-instructed retrieval context, our results indicate that long-term, spontaneous retrieval for neutral objects, is particularly heightened if encoded within emotionally salient contextual information. These findings may assist in understanding mechanisms underlying spontaneous retrieval of emotional associates and the utility of ERPs to study maladaptive involuntary memories in trauma- and stress-related disorders.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsycho.2019.107742DOI Listing
November 2019

Vagally mediated heart rate variability and safety learning: Effects of instructions and number of extinction trials.

Psychophysiology 2019 10 31;56(10):e13404. Epub 2019 May 31.

Department of Psychology, University of Greifswald, Greifswald, Germany.

Extinction of conditioned fear serves as a laboratory model for the mechanism of action underlying exposure treatment with patients suffering from anxiety disorders. Thus, an enhanced understanding of individual differences in extinction learning may help to improve exposure procedures by tailoring treatment plans to the specific needs of the patient. Vagally mediated heart rate variability (vmHRV) is a promising candidate to investigate individual differences in extinction learning because vmHRV is influenced by an inhibitory prefrontal-amygdala network that is similarly implied in extinction learning. Moreover, low levels of vmHRV were previously associated with a higher prevalence of anxiety disorders and a deficit in safety learning. Here, we report on two studies (Study 1: N = 48; Study 2: N = 120) in which we investigated the boundary conditions of the observed association between vmHRV and safety learning as indexed by startle potentiation during instructed or uninstructed extinction training. In Study 1 (conditional discrimination task), we found that low vmHRV levels are associated with higher CS+ potentiation during instructed extinction. In Study 2 (differential cue conditional task), we observed an association between individual vmHRV levels and defensive responding during CS- presentations and, in later instructed extinction trials, during intertrial intervals. These findings indicate an overactive defensive system in individuals with low levels of vmHRV that interferes with their ability to recognize safety and thus is associated with a general perception of unsafety.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/psyp.13404DOI Listing
October 2019

Oral Contraceptives Impair Complex Emotion Recognition in Healthy Women.

Front Neurosci 2018 11;12:1041. Epub 2019 Feb 11.

Department of Psychology, University of Greifswald, Greifswald, Germany.

Despite the widespread use of oral contraceptives (OCs), remarkably little is known about the effects of OCs on emotion, cognition, and behavior. However, coincidental findings suggest that OCs impair the ability to recognize others' emotional expressions, which may have serious consequences in interpersonal contexts. To further investigate the effects of OCs on emotion recognition, we tested whether women who were using OCs ( = 42) would be less accurate in the recognition of complex emotional expressions than women who were not using OCs ( = 53). In addition, we explored whether these differences in emotion recognition would depend on women's menstrual cycle phase. We found that women with OC use were indeed less accurate in the recognition of complex expressions than women without OC use, in particular during the processing of expressions that were difficult to recognize. These differences in emotion recognition did not depend on women's menstrual cycle phase. Our findings, thus, suggest that OCs impair women's emotion recognition, which should be taken into account when informing women about the side-effects of OC use.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.01041DOI Listing
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6378414PMC
February 2019

COMTVal158Met Genotype Affects Complex Emotion Recognition in Healthy Men and Women.

Front Neurosci 2018 22;12:1007. Epub 2019 Jan 22.

Department of Psychology, University of Greifswald, Greifswald, Germany.

The catechol-o-methyltransferase (COMT) gene has repeatedly been shown to change amygdala activity and amygdala-prefrontal connectivity during face processing. Although the COMT gene appears to induce a negativity bias during the neural processing of faces, it is currently unclear whether a similar negativity bias emerges during the behavioral processing of faces. To address this issue, we investigated differences in complex emotion recognition between participants ( = 181) that had been genotyped for functional polymorphisms of the COMT (Val158Met) and serotonin transporter (5-HTTLPR) gene. We were, thus, able to analyze differences in face processing on basis of participants' COMT genotype while controlling for participants' 5-HTTLPR genotype. Variations of participants' COMT but not 5-HTTLPR genotype accounted for differences in participants' emotion recognition performance: Met/Met carriers and Met/Val carriers were more accurate in the recognition of negative, but not neutral or positive, expressions than Val/Val carriers. We, therefore, revealed a similar negativity bias during the behavioral processing of faces that has already been demonstrated during the neural processing of faces, indicating that genotype-dependent changes in catecholamine metabolism may affect face processing on the behavioral and neural level.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.01007DOI Listing
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6349699PMC
January 2019

Resting State Vagally-Mediated Heart Rate Variability Is Associated With Neural Activity During Explicit Emotion Regulation.

Front Neurosci 2018 5;12:794. Epub 2018 Nov 5.

Department of Psychology, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, United States.

Resting state vagally mediated heart rate variability (vmHRV) is related to difficulties in emotion regulation (ER). The prefrontal cortex (PFC) provides inhibitory control over the amygdala during ER. Previous studies linked vmHRV with activity in the ventromedial PFC (vmPFC) during ER. To date no study examined the relation between vmHRV and brain activity during ER. vmHRV was measured during a 7 min baseline at T1 2-5 days preceding T2. At T2 = 24 participants (50% female, = 24.6 years) viewed neutral or emotional pictures of pleasant or unpleasant valence and were instructed to intensify or to reduce their present emotion using two ER strategies ( and ) or to passively view the picture. Participants rated the valence of their emotional state from pleasant to unpleasant after ER. Whole-brain fMRI data were collected using a 1.5-T-scanner. We observed an association between resting state vmHRV and brain activation in the PFC and the amygdala during ER of unpleasant emotions. Groups based on vmHRV showed significant differences in the modulation of amygdala activity as a function of ER strategy. In participants with vmHRV amygdala activity was modulated only when using and for vmHRV participants only when using . Similar, dorsomedial PFC activity in vmHRV participants was increased when using and in vmHRV participants when using to regulate unpleasant emotions. These results suggest that individuals with vmHRV might have difficulties in recruiting prefrontal brain areas necessary for the modulation of amygdala activity during explicit ER.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00794DOI Listing
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6231057PMC
November 2018

Effects of Transcutaneous Vagus Nerve Stimulation (tVNS) on the P300 and Alpha-Amylase Level: A Pilot Study.

Front Hum Neurosci 2018 21;12:202. Epub 2018 Jun 21.

Department of Psychology, University of Potsdam, Potsdam, Germany.

Recent research suggests that the P3b may be closely related to the activation of the locus coeruleus-norepinephrine (LC-NE) system. To further study the potential association, we applied a novel technique, the non-invasive transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation (tVNS), which is speculated to increase noradrenaline levels. Using a within-subject cross-over design, 20 healthy participants received continuous tVNS and sham stimulation on two consecutive days (stimulation counterbalanced across participants) while performing a visual oddball task. During stimulation, oval non-targets (standard), normal-head (easy) and rotated-head (difficult) targets, as well as novel stimuli (scenes) were presented. As an indirect marker of noradrenergic activation we also collected salivary alpha-amylase (sAA) before and after stimulation. Results showed larger P3b amplitudes for target, relative to standard stimuli, irrespective of stimulation condition. Exploratory analyses, however, revealed that, in comparison to standard stimuli, easy (but not difficult) targets produced larger P3b (but not P3a) amplitudes during active tVNS, compared to sham stimulation. For sAA levels, although main analyses did not show differential effects of stimulation, direct testing revealed that tVNS (but not sham stimulation) increased sAA levels after stimulation. Additionally, larger differences between tVNS and sham stimulation in P3b magnitudes for easy targets were associated with larger increase in sAA levels after tVNS, but not after sham stimulation. Despite preliminary evidence for a modulatory influence of tVNS on the P3b, which may be partly mediated by activation of the noradrenergic system, additional research in this field is clearly warranted. Future studies need to clarify whether tVNS also facilitates other processes, such as learning and memory, and whether tVNS can be used as therapeutic tool.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2018.00202DOI Listing
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6021745PMC
June 2018

Heartfelt memories: Cardiac vagal tone correlates with increased memory for untrustworthy faces.

Emotion 2019 Feb 19;19(1):178-182. Epub 2018 Mar 19.

Department of Psychology, University of Greifswald.

During social interactions, we rapidly judge others' trustworthiness on basis of their facial characteristics. Face-based trustworthiness judgments may not only affect our current but also our future interactions because we seem to be more inclined to remember untrustworthy than trustworthy faces. Memory formation of salient stimuli like untrustworthy faces may be modulated by the interplay between the autonomic and central nervous system, which can be indexed by changes in vagally mediated heart rate variability (HRV). To test this assumption, we investigated whether differences in HRV would be associated with differences in memory formation of untrustworthy faces in a sample of healthy participants (n = 34, all female). Untrustworthy faces were remembered more accurately than trustworthy faces, albeit only by participants with high and not low HRV. Across participants, increased memory accuracy for untrustworthy faces was associated with increased HRV. We discuss these findings in the context of neurobiological theories regarding the interplay between the autonomic and central nervous system during the regulation of autonomic, emotional and cognitive processes. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2019 APA, all rights reserved).
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/emo0000396DOI Listing
February 2019

Item and source memory for emotional associates is mediated by different retrieval processes.

Neuropsychologia 2020 08 12;145:106606. Epub 2017 Dec 12.

Department of Psychology, University of Potsdam, Potsdam, Germany. Electronic address:

Recent event-related potential (ERP) data showed that neutral objects encoded in emotional background pictures were better remembered than objects encoded in neutral contexts, when recognition memory was tested one week later. In the present study, we investigated whether this long-term memory advantage for items is also associated with correct memory for contextual source details. Furthermore, we were interested in the possibly dissociable contribution of familiarity and recollection processes (using a Remember/Know procedure). The results revealed that item memory performance was mainly driven by the subjective experience of familiarity, irrespective of whether the objects were previously encoded in emotional or neutral contexts. Correct source memory for the associated background picture, however, was driven by recollection and enhanced when the content was emotional. In ERPs, correctly recognized old objects evoked frontal ERP Old/New effects (300-500 ms), irrespective of context category. As in our previous study (Ventura-Bort et al., 2016b), retrieval for objects from emotional contexts was associated with larger parietal Old/New differences (600-800 ms), indicating stronger involvement of recollection. Thus, the results suggest a stronger contribution of recollection-based retrieval to item and contextual background source memory for neutral information associated with an emotional event.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2017.12.015DOI Listing
August 2020

Active avoidance and attentive freezing in the face of approaching threat.

Neuroimage 2017 09 29;158:196-204. Epub 2017 Jun 29.

Department of Biological and Clinical Psychology, University of Greifswald, 17487 Greifswald, Germany.

Defensive behaviors in animals and humans vary dynamically with increasing proximity of a threat and depending upon the behavioral repertoire at hand. The current study investigated physiological and behavioral adjustments and associated brain activation when participants were exposed to dynamically approaching threat that was either inevitable or could be avoided by motor action. When the approaching threat was inevitable, attentive freezing was observed as indicated by fear bradycardia, startle potentiation, and a dynamic increase in activation of the anterior insula and the periaqueductal grey. In preparation for active avoidance a switch in defensive behavior was observed characterized by startle inhibition and heart rate acceleration along with potentiated activation of the amygdala and the periaqueductal grey. Importantly, the modulation of defensive behavior according to threat imminence and the behavioral option at hand was associated with activity changes in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. These findings improve our understanding of brain mechanisms guiding human behavior during approaching threat depending on available resources.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2017.06.054DOI Listing
September 2017

Don't fear 'fear conditioning': Methodological considerations for the design and analysis of studies on human fear acquisition, extinction, and return of fear.

Neurosci Biobehav Rev 2017 06 3;77:247-285. Epub 2017 Mar 3.

Ruhr-University Bochum, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, Department of Cognitive Psychology, Bochum, Germany.

The so-called 'replicability crisis' has sparked methodological discussions in many areas of science in general, and in psychology in particular. This has led to recent endeavours to promote the transparency, rigour, and ultimately, replicability of research. Originating from this zeitgeist, the challenge to discuss critical issues on terminology, design, methods, and analysis considerations in fear conditioning research is taken up by this work, which involved representatives from fourteen of the major human fear conditioning laboratories in Europe. This compendium is intended to provide a basis for the development of a common procedural and terminology framework for the field of human fear conditioning. Whenever possible, we give general recommendations. When this is not feasible, we provide evidence-based guidance for methodological decisions on study design, outcome measures, and analyses. Importantly, this work is also intended to raise awareness and initiate discussions on crucial questions with respect to data collection, processing, statistical analyses, the impact of subtle procedural changes, and data reporting specifically tailored to the research on fear conditioning.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.02.026DOI Listing
June 2017

Acquisition and inhibition of conditioned fear is modulated by individual stimulus fear-relevance.

Neurobiol Learn Mem 2017 Jan 27;137:114-122. Epub 2016 Nov 27.

Department of Psychology, University of Greifswald, Germany.

Inhibitory learning is an important factor for decreasing fear expression. We investigated conditioned inhibition of learned fear responses using conditioned excitors and inhibitors differing in fear-relevance in a sample of 48 healthy female students. To study the effect of stimulus fear-relevance, we used the fear potentiated startle paradigm in an AX+/BX- discrimination learning task with fear-relevant (spider) vs. fear-irrelevant (butterfly) pictures as CS+ (A) and CS- (B), respectively. We found that, during acquisition, participants with elevated fear of spiders showed stronger fear potentiated startle to AX+ compared to BX- when the inhibitor (B) was fear-irrelevant (butterfly) using both median split as well as correlational analyses. In contrast, when the excitor (A) was fear-irrelevant (butterfly), fear potentiated startle to AX+ compared to BX- was reduced for participants with higher fear of spiders. Effects of conditioned inhibition were studied in a summation test, where excitor and inhibitor were presented in compound (AB) and compared to the last four excitor trials during prior acquisition. Conditioned inhibition was stronger for participants with a higher fear of spiders, when the butterfly acted as conditioned inhibitor (B). On the other hand, when the spider served as conditioned inhibitor, effects of conditioned inhibition were weaker for participants with higher fear of spiders. Hence, rather than to a general preparedness our data point to a specific impairment in safety learning for individually fear-relevant stimuli.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.nlm.2016.11.015DOI Listing
January 2017

Physiological and neural correlates of worry and rumination: Support for the contrast avoidance model of worry.

Psychophysiology 2017 02 21;54(2):161-171. Epub 2016 Oct 21.

Department of Psychology, University of Greifswald, Greifswald, Germany.

The current experiments tested neural and physiological correlates of worry and rumination in comparison to thinking about neutral events. According to the avoidance model-stating that worry is a strategy to reduce intense emotions-physiological and neurobiological activity during worried thinking should not differ from activation during neutral thinking. According to the contrast avoidance model-stating that worry is a strategy to reduce abrupt shifts of emotions-activity should be increased. To test these competing models, we induced worry and neutral thinking in healthy participants using personal topics. A rumination condition was added to investigate the specificity of changes induced by the mental process. Two experiments were conducted assessing the effects on different response levels: (1) neural activation using fMRI, and (2) physiological response mobilization using startle and autonomic measures. During worry, participants showed a potentiated startle response and BOLD activity indicative of emotional network activation. These data partly support the contrast avoidance model of worry. Both mental processes showed elevated activity in a common network referred to as default network indicating self-referential activity.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/psyp.12767DOI Listing
February 2017

When neutral turns significant: brain dynamics of rapidly formed associations between neutral stimuli and emotional contexts.

Eur J Neurosci 2016 09 26;44(5):2176-83. Epub 2016 Jul 26.

Department of Biological and Clinical Psychology, University of Greifswald, Franz-Mehring-Str. 47, 17487, Greifswald, Germany.

The ability to associate neutral stimuli with motivationally relevant outcomes is an important survival strategy. In this study, we used event-related potentials (ERPs) to investigate brain dynamics of associative emotional learning when participants were confronted with multiple heterogeneous information. Participants viewed 144 different objects in the context of 144 different emotional and neutral background scenes. During each trial, neutral objects were shown in isolation and then paired with the background scene. All pairings were presented twice to compare ERPs in response to neutral objects before and after single association. After single pairing, neutral objects previously encoded in the context of emotional scenes evoked a larger P100 over occipital electrodes compared to objects that were previously paired with neutral scenes. Likewise, larger late positive potentials (LPPs) were observed over parieto-occipital electrodes (450-750 ms) for objects previously associated with emotional relative to neutral contexts. The LPP - but not P100 - enhancement was also related to subjective object/context binding. Taken together, our ERP data provide evidence for fast emotional associative learning, as reflected by heightened perceptual and sustained elaborative processing for neutral information previously encountered in emotional contexts. These findings could assist in understanding binding mechanisms in stress and anxiety, as well as in addiction and eating-related disorders.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/ejn.13319DOI Listing
September 2016

Binding neutral information to emotional contexts: Brain dynamics of long-term recognition memory.

Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci 2016 Apr;16(2):234-47

Department of Biological and Clinical Psychology, University of Greifswald, Franz-Mehring-Str. 47, 17487, Greifswald, Germany.

There is abundant evidence in memory research that emotional stimuli are better remembered than neutral stimuli. However, effects of an emotionally charged context on memory for associated neutral elements is also important, particularly in trauma and stress-related disorders, where strong memories are often activated by neutral cues due to their emotional associations. In the present study, we used event-related potentials (ERPs) to investigate long-term recognition memory (1-week delay) for neutral objects that had been paired with emotionally arousing or neutral scenes during encoding. Context effects were clearly evident in the ERPs: An early frontal ERP old/new difference (300-500 ms) was enhanced for objects encoded in unpleasant compared to pleasant and neutral contexts; and a late central-parietal old/new difference (400-700 ms) was observed for objects paired with both pleasant and unpleasant contexts but not for items paired with neutral backgrounds. Interestingly, objects encoded in emotional contexts (and novel objects) also prompted an enhanced frontal early (180-220 ms) positivity compared to objects paired with neutral scenes indicating early perceptual significance. The present data suggest that emotional--particularly unpleasant--backgrounds strengthen memory for items encountered within these contexts and engage automatic and explicit recognition processes. These results could help in understanding binding mechanisms involved in the activation of trauma-related memories by neutral cues.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.3758/s13415-015-0385-0DOI Listing
April 2016

Discriminant validity of constructs derived from the self-regulative model for evaluation anxiety for predicting clinical manifestations of test anxiety.

Behav Res Ther 2015 Oct 29;73:52-7. Epub 2015 Jul 29.

Department of Biological and Clinical Psychology, University of Greifswald, Franz-Mehring-Str. 47, 17487 Greifswald, Germany. Electronic address:

Test anxiety is a highly prevalent and impairing syndrome. However, research on clinically relevant manifestations of test anxiety and especially on effective treatment components is still very sparse. In the present study we examined the predictive validity of constructs derived from the self-regulative model for evaluation anxiety proposed by Zeidner and Matthews (2007) for discriminating clinical and non-clinical levels of test anxiety. We compared self-report data from 47 clinically test anxious patients with those from 41 healthy university students. Results showed that learning goals, self-concept of abilities, self-incrimination, elaboration and perfectionism were the constructs that independently separated clinical from non-clinical levels of test anxiety, thus providing the strongest discriminant validity even when controlling for an effect of the global severity of mental health problems. These constructs spread across all three domains proposed in the model, thus providing important implications for possible targets of interventions to reduce clinical levels of test anxiety.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2015.07.012DOI Listing
October 2015

Resting heart rate variability is associated with inhibition of conditioned fear.

Psychophysiology 2015 Sep 11;52(9):1161-6. Epub 2015 Jun 11.

Department of Psychology, University of Greifswald, Greifswald, Germany.

Startle blink as well as skin conductance responses (SCR) are widely used indices of learning processes associated with fear conditioning and extinction. During safety learning, the amygdala is under top-down inhibitory control by the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The capacity of the PFC to exert inhibitory control over subcortical brain structures may be indexed by resting state vagally mediated heart rate variability (HRV). The present study investigated the association of resting HRV with startle blink and SCR during conditioned fear inhibition and extinction. Participants first learned to discriminate a threat cue (A) signaling an aversive unconditioned stimulus from a safety signal (B), which were each presented together with a third stimulus X (AX+/BX-). Then, both the threat and safety signal were presented together (AB) to test whether the presence of the learned safety signal inhibits the fear response to the danger signal. Finally, AX was presented without reinforcement (AX-) to investigate fear extinction. Higher HRV was associated with pronounced fear inhibition and fear extinction. Resting HRV levels were associated with fear extinction as indexed by startle blink potentiation but not SCR, which presumably reflect more cognitive aspects of learning. Resting HRV may reflect the capacity of the prefrontal cortex to inhibit subcortical fear responses in the presence of safety or when former threat cues are presented in the absence of threat.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/psyp.12456DOI Listing
September 2015

Impaired recognition of emotional facial expressions in patients with multiple sclerosis.

Mult Scler Relat Disord 2014 Jul 12;3(4):482-8. Epub 2014 Feb 12.

Department of Neurology, University of Greifswald, Sauerbruchstrasse, 17475 Greifswald, Germany. Electronic address:

Background: Disturbances that occur in patients with multiple sclerosis (MS) are not restricted to motor, sensory, or urinary functions; they also include cognitive dysfunction, fatigue, and depression. Moreover, people with MS are known to have fewer social activities and a reduced quality of life. One aspect of social interaction is accurate recognition of facial expressions. Several studies have suggested impairment in the processing of facial expressions in patients with multiple sclerosis, but it is not clear if these deficits are based on cognitive, depressive, or other attendant symptoms.

Objective: To investigate emotion recognition and facial identity recognition abilities and their relation with cognitive functions, depression, and fatigue in a cohort of MS patients.

Methods: Emotion recognition and facial identity recognition abilities were investigated in a cohort of 61 MS patients with unimpaired visual acuity and 53 healthy controls using the Florida Affect Battery. Additionally, we investigated possible relationships between impaired facial expression recognition and other clinical features.

Results: MS patients were not impaired in facial identity discrimination, but showed a poor performance in all subtests that required emotion recognition.

Conclusion: Impaired recognition of facial emotions by patients with MS seems to be associated with both cognitive and affective (depression) aspects of the disease.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.msard.2014.02.001DOI Listing
July 2014

Fear-potentiated startle processing in humans: Parallel fMRI and orbicularis EMG assessment during cue conditioning and extinction.

Int J Psychophysiol 2015 Dec 25;98(3 Pt 2):535-45. Epub 2015 Feb 25.

Department of Psychology, University of Greifswald, Germany.

Studying neural networks and behavioral indices such as potentiated startle responses during fear conditioning has a long tradition in both animal and human research. However, most of the studies in humans do not link startle potentiation and neural activity during fear acquisition and extinction. Therefore, we examined startle blink responses measured with electromyography (EMG) and brain activity measured with functional MRI simultaneously during differential conditioning. Furthermore, we combined these behavioral fear indices with brain network activity by analyzing the brain activity evoked by the startle probe stimulus presented during conditioned visual threat and safety cues as well as in the absence of visual stimulation. In line with previous research, we found a fear-induced potentiation of the startle blink responses when elicited during a conditioned threat stimulus and a rapid decline of amygdala activity after an initial differentiation of threat and safety cues in early acquisition trials. Increased activation during processing of threat cues was also found in the anterior insula, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), and the periaqueductal gray (PAG). More importantly, our results depict an increase of brain activity to probes presented during threatening in comparison to safety cues indicating an involvement of the anterior insula, the ACC, the thalamus, and the PAG in fear-potentiated startle processing during early extinction trials. Our study underlines that parallel assessment of fear-potentiated startle in fMRI paradigms can provide a helpful method to investigate common and distinct processing pathways in humans and animals and, thus, contributes to translational research.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2015.02.025DOI Listing
December 2015

Genetic influences on the acquisition and inhibition of fear.

Int J Psychophysiol 2015 Dec 16;98(3 Pt 2):499-505. Epub 2014 Oct 16.

Department of Psychology, University of Greifswald, Germany.

As a variant of the Pavlovian fear conditioning paradigm the conditional discrimination design allows for a detailed investigation of fear acquisition and fear inhibition. Measuring fear-potentiated startle responses, we investigated the influence of two genetic polymorphisms (5-HTTLPR and COMT Val(158)Met) on fear acquisition and fear inhibition which are considered to be critical mechanisms for the etiology and maintenance of anxiety disorders. 5-HTTLPR s-allele carriers showed a more stable potentiation of the startle response during fear acquisition. Homozygous COMT Met-allele carriers, which had demonstrated delayed extinction in previous investigations, show deficient fear inhibition in presence of a learned safety signal. Thus, our results provide further evidence that 5-HTTLPR and COMT Val(158)Met genotypes influence the vulnerability for the development of anxiety disorders via different mechanisms.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2014.10.007DOI Listing
December 2015

Discriminating clinical from nonclinical manifestations of test anxiety: a validation study.

Behav Ther 2014 Mar 10;45(2):222-31. Epub 2013 Nov 10.

University of Greifswald.

Test anxiety, although being a very common, severe, and impairing psychological disorder, is not coded as a separate diagnosis in the DSM or ICD. In the present study we investigated whether the Test Anxiety Inventory can be used to discriminate clinical and subclinical levels of test anxiety by comparing patients who seek treatment for their test anxiety in an outpatient clinic with carefully matched students with normal test anxiety. The data from 47 test-anxious patients as well as 41 healthy university students were examined. Results show that a cutoff score of ≥80 in the Test Anxiety Inventory can discriminate the clinical group from the control students. The symptom pattern of test anxiety was very consistent in the clinical group regardless of the principal diagnosis allocated by the treating clinician. Comorbid depression did not affect the severity of test anxiety. The motivation to avoid failure was one of the most important differences between patients who sought help for their test anxiety and students with nonclinical levels of test anxiety.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.beth.2013.11.001DOI Listing
March 2014

Mechanisms of change: effects of repetitive exposure to feared stimuli on the brain's fear network.

Psychophysiology 2012 Oct 22;49(10):1319-29. Epub 2012 Aug 22.

Department of Psychology, University of Greifswald, Greifswald, Germany.

Repetitive exposure to feared stimuli is considered as the essential element in therapy with phobic patients. However, the mechanisms mediating symptom reduction and their underlying neurobiological processes are poorly understood. Therefore, we presented the same fear-relevant and neutral stimuli repeatedly to individuals with high and low fear of animals during fMRI scanning. High-, but not low-fearful individuals showed an initial fear-stimulus-related potentiation of amygdala and insula activity. Potentiation of the amygdala in the high-fearful group habituated quickly, but insula activity was still potentiated during later repetition trials. Both groups showed an initial potentiation of the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC) that continuously decreased in low-, but not in high-fearful participants. Thus, within-session habituation may occur on an automatic processing level (amygdala), but does not cause lasting neural changes on a higher order cortical level (dmPFC).
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-8986.2012.01451.xDOI Listing
October 2012

Brain activation during anticipation of interoceptive threat.

Neuroimage 2012 Jul 14;61(4):857-65. Epub 2012 Mar 14.

Department of Psychology, University of Greifswald, Franz-Mehring-Strasse 47, 17487 Greifswald, Germany.

The current study investigated the neural networks activated during the anticipation of potentially threatening body symptoms evoked by a guided hyperventilation task in a group of participants reporting either high or low fear of unexplained somatic sensations. 15 subjects reporting high and 14 subjects reporting low fear of somatic symptoms first learned that one of two cues predicted the occurrence of a hyperventilation task reliably producing body symptoms in all participants that were rated as more intense and unpleasant in the high fear group. During anticipation of unpleasant symptoms, high fear participants reported more intense body symptoms and showed potentiation of the startle reflex. After this learning session, participants were taken into the fMRI where the same cues either predicted the occurrence of hyperventilation or normoventilation, although the task was never performed in the scanner. During anticipation of hyperventilation all participants showed an increased activation of anterior insula/orbitofrontal cortex and rostral parts of the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex/dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dACC/dmPFC). Brain activation of high compared to low fear participants differed in two ways. First, high fear participants showed an overall stronger activation of this network during threat and safe conditions indexing stronger anxious apprehension during the entire context. Second, while low fear participants no longer responded with stronger activation to the threat cue after experiencing that the hyperventilation challenge did not follow this cue, high fear participants continued to show stronger activation of the network to this cue. Activation of the rostral dACC/dmPFC was significantly correlated with reported fear of somatic symptoms. These data demonstrate that anticipation of interoceptive threat activates the same network that has been found to be active during anticipation of exteroceptive threat cues. Thus, the current paradigm might provide an innovative method to study anxious apprehension and treatment effects in patients with panic disorder.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2012.03.019DOI Listing
July 2012

Brain activation during spatial updating and attentive tracking of moving targets.

Brain Cogn 2012 Mar 27;78(2):105-13. Epub 2011 Dec 27.

Department of Psychology, University of Greifswald, Greifswald, Germany.

Keeping aware of the locations of objects while one is moving requires the updating of spatial representations. As long as the objects are visible, attentional tracking is sufficient, but knowing where objects out of view went in relation to one's own body involves an updating of spatial working memory. Here, multiple object tracking was employed to study spatial updating and its neural correlates. In a dynamic 3D-scene, targets moved among visually indistinguishable distractors. The targets and distractors either stayed visible during continuous viewpoint changes or they turned invisible. The parametric variation of tracking load revealed load-dependent activations of the intraparietal sulcus, the superior parietal lobule, and the lateral occipital cortex in response to the attentive tracking task. Viewpoint changes with invisible objects that demanded retention and updating produced load-dependent activation only in the precuneus in line with its presumed involvement in updating spatial working memory.
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http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bandc.2011.12.001DOI Listing
March 2012