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The Acquisition and Extinction of Fear of Painful Touch: A Novel Tactile Fear Conditioning Paradigm

  • Emma E. Biggs
    Correspondence
    Address reprint requests to Emma E. Biggs, MSc, Health Psychology, University of Leuven, Tiensestraat 102, box 3726, 3000 Leuven, Belgium.
    Affiliations
    Research Group Health Psychology, University of Leuven, Leuven, Belgium

    Department of Cognitive Neuroscience, Maastricht University, Maastricht, The Netherlands

    Department of Clinical Psychological Science, Maastricht University, Maastricht, The Netherlands
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  • Ann Meulders
    Affiliations
    Research Group Health Psychology, University of Leuven, Leuven, Belgium

    Department of Clinical Psychological Science, Maastricht University, Maastricht, The Netherlands

    Center for Excellence Generalization on Research in Health and Psychopathology, University of Leuven, Leuven, Belgium
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  • Amanda L. Kaas
    Affiliations
    Department of Cognitive Neuroscience, Maastricht University, Maastricht, The Netherlands
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  • Rainer Goebel
    Affiliations
    Department of Cognitive Neuroscience, Maastricht University, Maastricht, The Netherlands

    Department of Neuroimaging and Neuromodeling, Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, An institute of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Art and Sciences (KNAW), The Netherlands
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  • Johan W.S. Vlaeyen
    Affiliations
    Research Group Health Psychology, University of Leuven, Leuven, Belgium

    Department of Clinical Psychological Science, Maastricht University, Maastricht, The Netherlands

    Center for Excellence Generalization on Research in Health and Psychopathology, University of Leuven, Leuven, Belgium
    Search for articles by this author
Published:August 22, 2017DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpain.2017.08.002

      Highlights

      • Touch that is associated with pain in a predictable pain context induces cued fear.
      • Touch in an unpredictable pain context induces cued as well as contextual fear.
      • Both types of fear of touch can be successfully reduced using extinction protocols.
      • Fear of touch is a debilitating symptom in many chronic pain conditions.
      • Tactile conditioning can be a valuable tool for studying fear of touch.

      Abstract

      Fear of touch, due to allodynia and spontaneous pain, is not well understood. Experimental methods to advance this topic are lacking, and therefore we propose a novel tactile conditioning paradigm. Seventy-six pain-free participants underwent acquisition in a predictable as well as an unpredictable pain context. In the predictable context, vibrotactile stimulation was paired with painful electrocutaneous stimulation (simulating allodynia). In the unpredictable context, vibrotactile stimulation was unpaired with pain (simulating spontaneous pain). During an extinction phase, a cue exposure and context exposure group continued in the predictable and unpredictable context, respectively, without pain. A control group received continued acquisition in both contexts. Self-reported fear and skin conductance responses, but not startle responses, showed fear of touch was acquired in the predictable context. Context-related startle responses showed contextual fear emerged in the unpredictable context, together with elevated self-reported fear and skin conductance responses evoked by the unpaired vibrotactile stimulations. Cue exposure reduced fear of touch, whereas context exposure reduced contextual fear. Thus, painful touch leads to increased fear, as does touch in the same context as unpredictable pain, and extinction protocols can reduce this fear. We conclude that tactile conditioning is valuable for investigating fear of touch and can advance our understanding of chronic pain.

      Perspectives

      The acquisition and extinction of fear of touch was investigated in a clinical analog study using a novel tactile fear conditioning paradigm. The results have implications for research on the development and treatment of chronic pain conditions characterized by allodynia and spontaneous pain fluctuations.

      Key words

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