Targeting the consolidation of fear memories following trauma may offer a promising method for preventing the development of flashbacks and other unwanted re-experiencing symptoms that characterise Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Research has demonstrated that performing visuo-spatial tasks after analogue trauma can block the consolidation of fear memory and reduce the frequency of flashbacks. However, no research has yet used verbal techniques to alter memories during the consolidation window. This is surprising given that the most effective treatments for PTSD are verbally-based with exposure therapy and trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy gaining the most evidence of efficacy. Psychological therapies aim to reduce the conditioned fear response, which is in keeping with the preliminary finding that an increased propensity for fear conditioning may be a vulnerability factor for PTSD. Our research had two aims. We investigated the degree to which individual differences in fear conditioning predict the development of PTSD symptoms. We also compared the preventative effects of two clinically informed psychological techniques administered during the consolidation window: exposure to the trauma memory and updating the meaning of the trauma. 115 healthy participants underwent a fear conditioning paradigm in which traumatic film stimuli (unconditioned stimuli) were paired with neutral stimuli (conditioned stimuli). Participants were randomly allocated to an updating, exposure or control group to compare the effects on the conditioned fear response and on PTSD symptomatology. The results showed that stronger conditioned responses at acquisition significantly predicted the development of PTSD symptoms. The updating group, who verbally devalued the unconditioned stimulus within the consolidation window, experienced significantly lower levels of PTSD symptoms during follow-up than the exposure and control groups. These findings are consistent with clinical interventions for chronic PTSD and have important implications for identifying those at risk as well as for designing novel early interventions to prevent the development of PTSD.
Pile, V., Barnhofer, T., & Wild, J. (2015). Updating versus exposure to prevent consolidation of conditioned fear. PLoS ONE, 10(4). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0122971