Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can develop following exposure to a traumatic event. Re-experiencing, which includes intrusive memories or flashbacks of the trauma, is a core symptom cluster of PTSD. From an associative learning perspective, this cluster may be attributed to cues associated with the trauma, which have come to elicit symptoms in a variety of situations encountered in daily life due to a tendency to overgeneralize. Consistent with this, prior studies have indicated that both individuals with clinically diagnosed with PTSD, and those with self-reported symptoms who may not meet full diagnostic criteria, show changes in generalization. Building on prior research, the current study examined whether PTSD symptom burden, but also gender, veteran status, and combat experience-all associated with PTSD vulnerability-modulate learning and generalization in a computer-based task. Participants were presented with stimulus compounds consisting of a foreground and background that could be predictive of reward, punishment or no outcome. Learning was followed by a generalization test where these components were recombined to form novel configurations. An interaction between PTSD symptom burden and gender was found where females with more severe PTSD symptoms showed no evidence of sensitivity to the background. This result is consistent with increased generalization, and may indicate a decrease in the ability to process cue configurations leading to re-experiencing in a variety of situations. Further work is indicated to help elucidate the cognitive processes driving gender differences that may confer vulnerability to PTSD.
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