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Background: Dental stimuli can evoke fear after being paired - or conditioned - with aversive outcomes (e.g., pain). Pre-exposing the stimuli before conditioning can impair dental fear learning via a phenomenon known as latent inhibition. Theory suggests changes in expected relevance and attention are two mechanisms responsible for latent inhibition. In the proposed research, we test whether pre-exposure dose and degree of pre-exposure novelty potentiate changes in expected relevance and attention to a pre-exposed stimulus. We also assess if the manipulations alter latent inhibition and explore the possible moderating role of individual differences in pain sensitivity.

Methods: Participants will be healthy individuals across a wide range of ages (6 to 35 years), from two study sites. Participants will undergo pre-exposure and conditioning followed by both a short-term and long-term test of learning, all in a novel virtual reality environment. The unconditioned stimulus will be a brief pressurized puff of air to a maxillary anterior tooth. Pre-exposure dose (low vs. high) and pre-exposure novelty (element stimulus vs. compound stimuli) will be between-subject factors, with stimulus type (pre-exposed to-be conditioned stimulus, a non-pre-exposed conditioned stimulus, and an unpaired control stimulus) and trial as within-subject factors. Pain sensitivity will be measured through self-report and a cold pressor test. It is hypothesized that a larger dose of pre-exposure and compound pre-exposure will potentiate the engagement of the target mechanisms and thereby result in greater latent inhibition in the form of reduced fear learning. Further, it is hypothesized that larger effects will be observed in participants with greater baseline pain sensitivity.

Discussion: The proposed study will test whether pre-exposure dose and compound stimulus presentation change expected relevance and attention to the pre-exposed stimulus, and thereby enhance latent inhibition of dental fear. If found, the results will add to our theoretical understanding of the latent inhibition of dental fear and inform future interventions for dental phobia prevention.


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Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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BMC Psychology





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