Heterogeneity in signaled active avoidance learning: Substantive and methodological relevance of diversity in instrumental defensive responses to threat cues

Isaac R. Galatzer-Levy, Justin Moscarello, Esther M. Blessing, Jo Anna Klein, Christopher K. Cain, Joseph E. LeDoux

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Individuals exposed to traumatic stressors follow divergent patterns including resilience and chronic stress. However, researchers utilizing animal models that examine learned or instrumental threat responses thought to have translational relevance for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and resilience typically use central tendency statistics that assume population homogeneity. This approach potentially overlooks fundamental differences that can explain human diversity in response to traumatic stressors. The current study tests this assumption by identifying and replicating common heterogeneous patterns of response to signaled active avoidance (AA) training. In this paradigm, rats are trained to prevent an aversive outcome (shock) by performing a learned instrumental behavior (shuttling between chambers) during the presentation of a conditioned threat cue (tone). We test the hypothesis that heterogeneous trajectories of threat avoidance provide more accurate model fit compared to a single mean trajectory in two separate studies. Study 1 conducted 3 days of signaled AA training (n = 81 animals) and study 2 conducted 5 days of training (n = 186 animals). We found that four trajectories in both samples provided the strongest model fit. Identified populations included animals that acquired and retained avoidance behavior on the first day (Rapid Avoiders: 22 and 25%); those who never successfully acquired avoidance (Non-Avoiders; 20 and 16%); a modal class who acquired avoidance over 3 days (Modal Avoiders; 37 and 50%); and a population who demonstrated a slow pattern of avoidance, failed to fully acquire avoidance in study 1 and did acquire avoidance on days 4 and 5 in study 2 (Slow Avoiders; 22.0 and 9%). With the exception of the Slow Avoiders in Study 1, populations that acquired demonstrated rapid step-like increases leading to asymptotic levels of avoidance. These findings indicate that avoidance responses are heterogeneous in a way that may be informative for understanding both resilience and PTSD as well as the nature of instrumental behavior acquisition. Characterizing heterogeneous populations based on their response to threat cues would increase the accuracy and translatability of such models and potentially lead to new discoveries that explain diversity in instrumental defensive responses.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number179
JournalFrontiers in Systems Neuroscience
Issue numberSEP
StatePublished - Sep 24 2014


  • Fear conditioning
  • Heterogeneity
  • Latent growth mixture modeling
  • Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Resilience
  • Signaled active avoidance
  • Threat conditioning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience (miscellaneous)
  • Developmental Neuroscience
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience


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