Medial prefrontal pathways for the contextual regulation of extinguished fear in humans.
The maintenance of anxiety disorders is thought to depend, in part, on deficits in extinction memory, possibly due to reduced contextual control of extinction that leads to fear renewal. Animal studies suggest that the neural circuitry responsible fear renewal includes the hippocampus, amygdala, and dorsomedial (dmPFC) and ventromedial (vmPFC) prefrontal cortex. However, the neural mechanisms of context-dependent fear renewal in humans remain poorly understood. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), combined with psychophysiology and immersive virtual reality, to elucidate how the hippocampus, amygdala, and dmPFC and vmPFC interact to drive the context-dependent renewal of extinguished fear. Healthy human participants encountered dynamic fear-relevant conditioned stimuli (CSs) while navigating through 3-D virtual reality environments in the MRI scanner. Conditioning and extinction were performed in two different virtual contexts. Twenty-four hours later, participants were exposed to the CSs without reinforcement while navigating through both contexts in the MRI scanner. Participants showed enhanced skin conductance responses (SCRs) to the previously-reinforced CS+ in the acquisition context on Day 2, consistent with fear renewal, and sustained responses in the dmPFC. In contrast, participants showed low SCRs to the CSs in the extinction context on Day 2, consistent with extinction recall, and enhanced vmPFC activation to the non-reinforced CS-. Structural equation modeling revealed that the dmPFC fully mediated the effect of the hippocampus on right amygdala activity during fear renewal, whereas the vmPFC partially mediated the effect of the hippocampus on right amygdala activity during extinction recall. These results indicate dissociable contextual influences of the hippocampus on prefrontal pathways, which, in turn, determine the level of reactivation of fear associations.
Åhs, F; Kragel, PA; Zielinski, DJ; Brady, R; LaBar, KS
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