Persons suffering from anxiety disorders display facilitated processing of arousing and negative stimuli, such as negative words. This memory bias is reflected in better recall and increased amygdala activity in response to such stimuli. However, individual learning histories were not considered in most studies, a concern that we meet here. Thirty-four female persons (half with high-, half with low trait anxiety) participated in a criterion-based associative word-learning paradigm, in which neutral pseudowords were paired with aversive or neutral pictures, which should lead to a valence change for the negatively paired pseudowords. After learning, pseudowords were tested with fMRI to investigate differential brain activation of the amygdala evoked by the newly acquired valence. Explicit and implicit memory was assessed directly after training and in three follow-ups at four-day intervals. The behavioral results demonstrate that associative word-learning leads to an explicit (but no implicit) memory bias for negatively linked pseudowords, relative to neutral ones, which confirms earlier studies. Bilateral amygdala activation underlines the behavioral effect: Higher trait anxiety is correlated with stronger amygdala activation for negatively linked pseudowords than for neutrally linked ones. Most interestingly, this effect is also present for negatively paired pseudowords that participants could not remember well. Moreover, neutrally paired pseudowords evoked higher amygdala reactivity than completely novel ones in highly anxious persons, which can be taken as evidence for generalization. These findings demonstrate that few word-learning trials generate a memory bias for emotional stimuli, indexed both behaviorally and neurophysiologically. Importantly, the typical memory bias for emotional stimuli and the generalization to neutral ones is larger in high anxious persons
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