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An exploration of amygdala‐prefrontal mechanisms in the intergenerational transmission of learned fear


Humans learn about their environments by observing others, including what to fear and what to trust. Observational fear learning may be especially important early in life when children turn to their parents to gather information about their world. Yet, the vast majority of empirical research on fear learning in youth has thus far focused on firsthand classical conditioning, which may fail to capture one of the primary means by which fears are acquired during development. To address this gap in the literature, the present study examined observational fear learning in youth (n = 33; age range: 6-17 years) as they watched videos of their parent and an "unfamiliar parent" (i.e., another participant's parent) undergo fear conditioning. Youth demonstrated stronger fear learning when observing their parent compared to an unfamiliar parent, as indicated by changes in their self-reported liking of the stimuli to which their parents were conditioned (CS+, a geometric shape paired with an aversive noise; CS-, a geometric shape never paired with an aversive noise) and amygdala responses. Parent trait anxiety was associated with youth learning better (i.e., reporting a stronger preference for the CS- relative to CS+), and exhibiting stronger medial prefrontal-amygdala connectivity. Neuroimaging data were additionally acquired from a subset of parents during firsthand conditioning, and parental amygdala and mPFC activation were associated with youth's neural recruitment. Together, these results suggest that youth preferentially learn fears via observation of their parents, and this learning is associated with emotional traits and neural recruitment in parents.

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