Trauma, Learned Helplessness, Its Neuroscience, and Implications for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

Vincent M. LoLordo and J. Bruce Overmier

in Associative Learning and Conditioning Theory

Published in print March 2011 | ISBN: 9780199735969
Published online May 2011 | e-ISBN: 9780199894529 | DOI:
Trauma, Learned Helplessness, Its Neuroscience, and Implications for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

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Forty years ago it was discovered that animals that had previously experienced inescapable aversive events, but not ones that had learned to escape these events, subsequently failed to learn to escape aversive events in a new situation with new task demands. This finding gave rise to a major theoretical development, the learned helplessness hypothesis, and stimulated an enormous amount of research on the varied effects of lack of control. One focus of this chapter is research from the Maier-Watkins laboratory on the neural basis of learned helplessness effects, culminating in recent work on the role of medial prefrontal cortex in mediating the differential effects of escapable versus inescapable aversive events. Then applications of learned helplessness to human psychopathology are considered, with the focus on parallels between learned helplessness and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These include Pavlovian fear conditioning to stimuli associated with the trauma, as well as sensitization, whereby learned helplessness rats and PTSD patients acquire new fears readily, show deficits in extinction of fear, and also exhibit exaggerated startle responses, an aspect of hyperarousal. Parallels between the neural bases of learned helplessness and PTSD are considered; the most studied are enhanced activation of the amygdala and attenuated activation of medial prefrontal cortex in learned helplessness/PTSD.

Keywords: learned helplessness; dorsal raphe nucleus; medial prefrontal cortex; inescapable shock; serotonin; posttraumatic stress disorder; reminder cues; anxiety; conditioned fear

Chapter.  20157 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Cognitive Psychology

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