Individual differences in conditioned fear are associated with levels of adolescent/early adult alcohol consumption and instrumental extinction

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Previous research has shown a relationship between alcohol exposure and conditioned fear, but the nature of this relationship remains unclear. We determined whether chronic intermittent access to alcohol during adolescence and early adulthood would alter or be associated with the level of conditioned fear to an auditory cue in male Long Evans rats. Rats received 6 weeks of chronic intermittent access to 20% alcohol or water from PND 26–66 and began behavioral testing 10 days later. We found no evidence that voluntary alcohol consumption altered fear. However, we found that rats that consumed more alcohol had lower fear, as measured with conditioned suppression of lever-pressing and conditioned freezing to an auditory cue. We have previously shown that higher levels of alcohol consumption are correlated with faster instrumental extinction learning. Therefore, we determined whether instrumental extinction would be directly associated with conditioned fear in rats never given alcohol access. As predicted, we found that rats that exhibited faster instrumental extinction also exhibited lower conditioned fear, as measured with conditioned suppression of lever-pressing and conditioned freezing. Our results suggest that at least part of the relationship between alcohol consumption levels and fear learning differences may be due to pre-existing individual differences. In addition, our finding that conditioned fear and instrumental extinction abilities (both separately associated with alcohol consumption levels) are associated with each other suggests that alcohol consumption levels may be a marker that can distinguish two separate phenotypes that encompass a wide variety of learning traits.

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