Selectivity of conditioned fear of touch is modulated by somatosensory precision

Daniel S. Harvie, Ann Meulders, Emily Reid, Danny Camfferman, Russell S.A. Brinkworth, G. Lorimer Moseley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Citations (Scopus)


Learning to initiate defenses in response to specific signals of danger is adaptive. Some chronic pain conditions, however, are characterized by widespread anxiety, avoidance, and pain consistent with a loss of defensive response specificity. Response specificity depends on ability to discriminate between safe and threatening stimuli; therefore, specificity might depend on sensory precision. This would help explain the high prevalence of chronic pain in body areas of low tactile acuity, such as the lower back, and clarify why improving sensory precision may reduce chronic pain. We compared the acquisition and generalization of fear of pain-associated vibrotactile stimuli delivered to either the hand (high tactile acuity) or the back (low tactile acuity). During acquisition, tactile stimulation at one location (CS+) predicted the noxious electrocutaneous stimulation (US), while tactile stimulation at another location (CS-) did not. Responses to three stimuli with decreasing spatial proximity to the CS+ (generalizing stimuli; GS1-3) were tested. Differential learning and generalization were compared between groups. The main outcome of fear-potentiated startle responses showed differential learning only in the hand group. Self-reported fear and expectancy confirmed differential learning and limited generalization in the hand group, and suggested undifferentiated fear and expectancy in the back group. Differences in generalization could not be inferred from the startle data. Specificity of fear responses appears to be affected by somatosensory precision. This has implications for our understanding of the role of sensory imprecision in the development of chronic pain.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)921-929
Number of pages9
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • Classical condition
  • Differential conditioning
  • Fear conditioning
  • Fear of touch
  • Generalization
  • Overgeneralization
  • Pain


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