Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology

, Volume 47, Issue 4, pp 659–670 | Cite as

Extinction Learning as a Potential Mechanism Linking High Vagal Tone with Lower PTSD Symptoms among Abused Youth

  • Jessica L. Jenness
  • Adam Bryant Miller
  • Maya L. Rosen
  • Katie A. McLaughlinEmail author


Childhood abuse is a potent risk factor for psychopathology, including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Research has shown high resting vagal tone, a measure of parasympathetic nervous system function, protects abused youth from developing internalizing psychopathology, but potential mechanisms explaining this effect are unknown. We explored fear extinction learning as a possible mechanism underlying the protective effect of vagal tone on PTSD symptoms among abused youth. We measured resting respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) and skin conductance responses (SCR) during a fear conditioning and extinction task in youth with variability in abuse exposure (N = 94; aged 6–18 years). High RSA predicted lower PTSD symptoms and enhanced extinction learning among abused youths. In a moderated-mediation model, extinction learning mediated the association of abuse with PTSD symptoms only among youth with high RSA. These findings highlight extinction learning as a possible mechanism linking high vagal tone to decreased risk for PTSD symptoms among abused youth.


Respiratory sinus arrhythmia Resting vagal tone Posttraumatic stress disorder Fear extinction Child abuse 



This research was supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (T32 HD057822-06: JLJ; F32 HD089514: MLR), the National Institute of Mental Health (R01-MH103291: KAM; F32 MH108238: ABM; K23MH112872-01: JLJ), a Brain and Behavior Research Foundation NARSAD Young Investigator Grant (KAM), and a Jacobs Foundation Early Career Research Fellowship (KAM).

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors have no conflicts of interest to disclose.

Ethical Approval

All procedures were approved by the Institutional Review Board at the University of Washington and performed in accordance with the ethical standards as outlined in the 1964 Declaration of Helsinki.

Informed Consent

Youth completed questionnaire measures to assess for PTSD symptomatology. Informed consent was obtained from the parent or guardian who attended the session with the participant, and assent was provided by all youth participants.

Supplementary material

10802_2018_464_MOESM1_ESM.docx (16 kb)
Supplemental Table 1 (DOCX 15 kb)
10802_2018_464_MOESM2_ESM.docx (63 kb)
Supplemental Table 2 (DOCX 62 kb)
10802_2018_464_MOESM3_ESM.jpg (68 kb)
Supplemental Fig. 1 Fear conditioning task (JPG 68 kb)


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral SciencesUniversity of WashingtonSeattleUSA
  2. 2.Department of Psychology and NeuroscienceUniversity of North CarolinaCameronUSA
  3. 3.Department of PsychologyUniversity of WashingtonSeattleUSA
  4. 4.Department of PsychologyHarvard UniversityBostonUSA

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