- Vicarious extinction learning during reconsolidation neutralizes fear memory
- Behaviour Research and Therapy
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- Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences (FMG)
- Psychology Research Institute (PsyRes)
Background: Previous studies have suggested that fear memories can be updated when recalled, a process referred to as reconsolidation. Given the beneficial effects of model-based safety learning (i.e. vicarious extinction) in preventing the recovery of short-term fear memory, we examined whether consolidated long-term fear memories could be updated with safety learning accomplished through vicarious extinction learning initiated within the reconsolidation time-window. We assessed this in a final sample of 19 participants that underwent a three-day within-subject fear-conditioning design, using fear-potentiated startle as our primary index of fear learning.
Methods: On day 1, two fear-relevant stimuli (reinforced CSs) were paired with shock (US) and a third stimulus served as a control (CS[sbnd]). On day 2, one of the two previously reinforced stimuli (the reminded CS) was presented once in order to reactivate the fear memory 10 min before vicarious extinction training was initiated for all CSs. The recovery of the fear memory was tested 24 h later.
Results and conclusion: Vicarious extinction training conducted within the reconsolidation time window specifically prevented the recovery of the reactivated fear memory (p = 0.03), while leaving fear-potentiated startle responses to the non-reactivated cue intact (p = 0.62). These findings are relevant to both basic and clinical research, suggesting that a safe, non-invasive model-based exposure technique has the potential to enhance the efficiency and durability of anxiolytic therapies.
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