Evidence for distinct genetic and environmental influences on fear acquisition and extinction

K. L. Purves, G. Krebs, T. McGregor, E. Constantinou, K. J. Lester, T. J. Barry, M. G. Craske, K. S. Young, G. Breen, T. C. Eley

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5 Citations (SciVal)


Background Anxiety disorders are highly prevalent with an early age of onset. Understanding the aetiology of disorder emergence and recovery is important for establishing preventative measures and optimising treatment. Experimental approaches can serve as a useful model for disorder and recovery relevant processes. One such model is fear conditioning. We conducted a remote fear conditioning paradigm in monozygotic and dizygotic twins to determine the degree and extent of overlap between genetic and environmental influences on fear acquisition and extinction. Methods In total, 1937 twins aged 22-25 years, including 538 complete pairs from the Twins Early Development Study took part in a fear conditioning experiment delivered remotely via the Fear Learning and Anxiety Response (FLARe) smartphone app. In the fear acquisition phase, participants were exposed to two neutral shape stimuli, one of which was repeatedly paired with a loud aversive noise, while the other was never paired with anything aversive. In the extinction phase, the shapes were repeatedly presented again, this time without the aversive noise. Outcomes were participant ratings of how much they expected the aversive noise to occur when they saw either shape, throughout each phase. Results Twin analyses indicated a significant contribution of genetic effects to the initial acquisition and consolidation of fear, and the extinction of fear (15, 30 and 15%, respectively) with the remainder of variance due to the non-shared environment. Multivariate analyses revealed that the development of fear and fear extinction show moderate genetic overlap (genetic correlations 0.4-0.5). Conclusions Fear acquisition and extinction are heritable, and share some, but not all of the same genetic influences.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1106-1114
JournalPsychological Medicine
Issue number3
Early online date3 Sept 2021
Publication statusPublished - 28 Feb 2023

Bibliographical note

K.L. Purves was funded during this work by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and the UK Medical Research Council. T. McGregor is supported by the UK Medical Research Council (MR/N013700/1). T.C. Eley and G. Breen are part-funded by a programme grant from the UK Medical Research Council (MR/V012878/1). The TEDS study has received repeated programme grant funding from the UK Medical Research Council (programme grant at time of data collection MR/M021475/1). This study presents independent research part-funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Biomedical Research Centre at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and King's College London. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the NHS, the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care.


  • fear acquisition
  • Fear conditioning
  • fear extinction
  • genetic correlation
  • heritability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Applied Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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