Brain Cells Related To Fear Identified
The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that in any given year, about 40 million adults (18 or older) will suffer from some form of anxiety disorder, including debilitating conditions such as phobias, panic disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
It is estimated that nearly 15 percent of U.S. soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan develop PTSD, underscoring the urgency to develop better treatment strategies for anxiety disorders. These disorders can lead to myriad problems that hinder daily life – or ruin it altogether – such as drug abuse, alcoholism, marital problems, unemployment and suicide.
Functional imaging studies in combat veterans have revealed that the amygdala, a cerebral structure of the temporal lobe known to play a key role in fear and anxiety, is hyperactive in PTSD subjects. Potentially paving the way for more effective treatments of anxiety disorders, a recent Nature report by Denis Paré, professor at the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience at Rutgers University in Newark, has identified a critical component of the amygdala’s neural network normally involved in the extinction, or elimination, of fear memories. Paré’s laboratory studies the amygdala and how its activity impacts behavior. His research was published online by Nature on July 9, 2008 and is scheduled to appear in the print edition later in July.
Earlier research has revealed that in animals and humans, the amygdala is involved in the expression of innate fear responses, such as the fear of snakes, along with the formation of new fear memories as a result of experience, such as learning to fear the sound of a siren that predicts an air raid.
In the laboratory, the circuits underlying learned fear are typically studied using an experimental paradigm called Pavlovian fear conditioning. In this research model on rats, a neutral stimulus such as the sound of a tone elicited a fear response in the rats after they heard it paired with an noxious or unpleasant stimulus, such as a shock to the feet. However, this conditioned fear response was diminished with repetition of the neutral stimulus in the absence of the noxious stimulus. This phenomenon is known as extinction. This approach is similar to that used to treat human phobias, where the subject is presented with the feared object in the absence of danger.
Behavioral studies have demonstrated, however, that extinction training does not completely abolish the initial fear memory, but rather leads to the formation of a new memory that inhibits conditioned fear responses at the level of the amygdala. As such, fear responses can be expressed again when the conditioned stimulus is presented in a context other than the one where extinction training took place.
For example, suppose a rat is trained for extinction in a grey box smelling of roses, and later hears the tone again in a different box, with a different smell and appearance. The rat will show no evidence of having been trained for extinction. The tone will evoke as much fear as if the rat had not been trained for extinction.
“Extinction memory will only be expressed if tested in the same environment where the extinction training occurred, implying that extinction does not erase the initial fear memory but only suppresses it in a context-specific manner,” notes Paré.
Importantly, it has been found that people with anxiety disorders exhibit an “extinction deficit,” or a failure to “forget.” However, until recently, the mechanisms of extinction have remained unknown.
As reported by Nature, Paré has found that clusters of amygdala cells, known as the intercalated (ITC) neurons, play a key role in extinction. His findings indicate that ITC cells inhibit amygdala outputs to the brain stem structures that generate fear responses. Indeed, Paré and his collaborators have shown that when ITC cells are destroyed with a targeted toxin in rats, extinction memory is impeded, mimicking the behavior seen in PTSD.
The significance of this finding derives from earlier results suggesting that PTSD reflects an extinction deficit and that the amygdala is hyperactive in this disorder. As a result, it might be possible to compensate for this abnormality and facilitate extinction with pharmacological interventions that enhance the excitability of ITC cells to inhibit amygdala outputs.
Nature advance online publication 9 July 2008 | doi:10.1038/nature07167 Letter
Amygdala intercalated neurons are required for expression of fear extinction
Ekaterina Likhtik, Daniela Popa, John Apergis-Schoute, George A. Fidacaro, Denis Paré
Congruent findings from studies of fear learning in animals and humans indicate that research on the circuits mediating fear constitutes our best hope of understanding human anxiety disorders. In mammals, repeated presentations of a conditioned stimulus that was previously paired to a noxious stimulus leads to the gradual disappearance of conditioned fear responses. Although much evidence suggests that this extinction process depends on plastic events in the amygdala, the underlying mechanisms remain unclear. Intercalated (ITC) amygdala neurons constitute probable mediators of extinction because they receive information about the conditioned stimulus from the basolateral amygdala (BLA), and contribute inhibitory projections to the central nucleus (CEA), the main output station of the amygdala for conditioned fear responses. Thus, after extinction training, ITC cells could reduce the impact of conditioned-stimulus-related BLA inputs to the CEA by means of feed-forward inhibition. Here we test the hypothesis that ITC neurons mediate extinction by lesioning them with a toxin that selectively targets cells expressing micro-opioid receptors (microORs). Electron microscopic observations revealed that the incidence of microOR-immunoreactive synapses is much higher in ITC cell clusters than in the BLA or CEA and that microORs typically have a post-synaptic location in ITC cells. In keeping with this, bilateral infusions of the microOR agonist dermorphin conjugated to the toxin saporin in the vicinity of ITC neurons caused a 34% reduction in the number of ITC cells but no significant cell loss in surrounding nuclei. Moreover, ITC lesions caused a marked deficit in the expression of extinction that correlated negatively with the number of surviving ITC neurons but not CEA cells. Because ITC cells exhibit an unusual pattern of receptor expression, these findings open new avenues for the treatment of anxiety disorders.