Understanding the interaction between fear and reward at the circuit and molecular levels has implications for basic scientific approaches to memory and for understanding the etiology of psychiatric disorders. Both stress and exposure to drugs of abuse induce epigenetic changes that result in persistent behavioral changes, some of which may contribute to the formation of a drug addiction or a stress-related psychiatric disorder. Converging evidence suggests that similar behavioral, neurobiological and molecular mechanisms control the extinction of learned fear and drug-seeking responses. This may, in part, account for the fact that individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder have a significantly elevated risk of developing a substance use disorder and have high rates of relapse to drugs of abuse, even after long periods of abstinence. At the behavioral level, a major challenge in treatments is that extinguished behavior is often not persistent, returning with changes in context, the passage of time or exposure to mild stressors. A common goal of treatments is therefore to weaken the ability of stressors to induce relapse. With the discovery of epigenetic mechanisms that create persistent molecular signals, recent work on extinction has focused on how modulating these epigenetic targets can create lasting extinction of fear or drug-seeking behavior. Here, we review recent evidence pointing to common behavioral, systems and epigenetic mechanisms in the regulation of fear and drug seeking. We suggest that targeting these mechanisms in combination with behavioral therapy may promote treatment and weaken stress-induced relapse.
Overlapping behavioral, neurobiological and epigenetic mechanisms control the extinction of learned fear and drug-seeking responses.