e-Neuroforum

, Volume 4, Issue 3, pp 63–70 | Cite as

Context conditioning in virtual reality as a model for pathological anxiety

Review article

Abstract

Phobic fear which is triggered by specific stimuli can be modeled experimentally through cue conditioning. In contrast, context conditioning may serve as a model for anxiety which is longer lasting and unrelated to cues. Such context conditioning can be studied in humans in analogy to animal studies by using virtual reality (VR). Our VR context conditioning paradigm uses virtual offices as contexts. One office becomes the anxiety context since participants receive unpredictable mildly painful electric stimulations. The other office becomes the safety context because no aversive stimulation is delivered while participants explore this office. The validity of the paradigm is indicated in the findings that after conditioning participants rate the virtual anxiety context as anxiety eliciting, avoid this context, and show startle potentiation in this context. Our studies further revealed that known risk factors for anxiety disorders affect context conditioning. We found that enhanced trait anxiety facilitates contextual fear conditioning. In addition, we observed that individuals with genetic risks for anxiety disorders learn context conditioning very effectively as shown in startle potentiation. These findings suggest that in individuals vulnerable to anxiety disorders such as panic disorder or posttraumatic stress disorder, context conditioning may have contributed to the development of these disorders.

Keywords

Fear Anxiety Conditioning Virtual reality 

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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Psychology I, Biological Psychology, Clinical Psychology, and PsychotherapyUniversity of WürzburgWürzburgGermany
  2. 2.Department of Clinical Psychology, and PsychotherapyUniversity of RegensburgRegensburgGermany

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