Sign-tracking to an appetitive cue predicts incubation of conditioned fear in rats

Jonathan D. Morrow, Benjamin T. Saunders, Stephen Maren, Terry E. Robinson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Scopus citations


Although post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and addiction are very different disorders, both are characterized by hyperreactivity to trauma- or drug-related cues, respectively. We investigated whether an appetitive conditioning task, Pavlovian conditioned approach, which predicts vulnerability to reinstatement of cocaine-seeking, also predicts fear incubation, which may be a marker for vulnerability to PTSD. We classified rats based on whether they learned to approach and interact with a food predictive cue (sign-trackers), or, whether upon cue presentation they went to the location of impending food delivery (goal-trackers). Rats were then exposed to extensive Pavlovian tone-shock pairings, which causes the fear response to increase or "incubate" over time. We found that the fear incubation effect was only present in sign-trackers. The behavior of goal-trackers was more consistent with a normal fear response-it was most robust immediately after training and decayed slowly over time. Sign-trackers also had lower levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) protein in the prefrontal cortex than goal-trackers. These results indicate that, while many factors likely contribute to the disproportionate co-occurrence of PTSD and substance abuse, one such factor may be a core psychological trait that biases some individuals to attribute excessive motivational significance to predictive cues, regardless of the emotional valence of those cues. High levels of BDNF in the prefrontal cortex may be protective against developing excessive emotional and motivational responses to salient cues.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)59-66
Number of pages8
JournalBehavioural Brain Research
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We wish to thank Philip Presnell, Christopher Fitzpatrick, Vedran Lovic, and Elizabeth LaRose for their technical assistance with these experiments. This work was supported by grants from the NIH to SM ( R01 MH065961 ) and TER ( R37 DA04294 and P01 DA031656 ).


  • Addiction
  • Autoshaping
  • Brain-derived neurotrophic factor
  • Individual differences
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Vulnerability

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