Preventing the Return of Fear Memories With Postretrieval Extinction: A Human Study Using a Burst of White Noise as an Aversive Stimulus

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Abstract

Standard extinction procedures seem to imply an inhibition of the fear response, but not a modification of the original fear-memory trace, which remains intact (Bouton, 2002, 2004). Typically, the behavioral procedure used to modify this trace is the so-called postretrieval extinction, consisting of fear-memory reactivation followed by extinction applied within the reconsolidation window. However, the application of this technique yields mixed results, probably due to a series of boundary conditions that limit the effectiveness of postretrieval-extinction effects. In this study a number of potential, and hitherto unexplored, moderators of such effects are considered. Using an interval of 48 hr between extinction and re-extinction, the findings show a spontaneous recovery similar to that found in studies that use a 24-hr interval. Also, the use of intervals of 10 and 20 min between reactivation and extinction led to a similar fear return. Finally, the burst of white noise used as an unconditioned stimulus (US) here was shown to be as effective as the electric shock normally used in the study of fear-memory reconsolidation. These findings suggest that postretrieval extinction is an effective behavioral technique for modifying the original fear memory and for the elimination of the fear return.

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