The Role of the Medial Prefrontal Cortex in the Generalization of Conditioned Fear

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Objective:Fear generalization, the generalization of fear to innocuous stimuli, is a characteristic component of pathological anxiety. Neural models of fear generalization suggest the involvement of the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). However, conflicting empirical findings complicate our understanding of the role of the mPFC in pathological anxiety. To address important unanswered questions in this area, a detailed review and synthesis of results from human and nonhuman animal investigations of conditioned fear generalization was conducted. Method: Empirical articles were identified through March 2017 and selected if they used fear conditioning, measured fear generalization, and included a measure of activity in the mPFC or manipulation of mPFC functioning. Results: In human cued fear conditioning, the ventral mPFC plays an important role in the inhibition of fear generalization, whereas dorsal mPFC is important for the activation of generalized fear. This pattern remains to be further investigated in nonhuman animal models. Nonhuman animal research suggests an interaction between the neural correlates of contextual fear generalization and timing, such that the mPFC appears to increase fear generalization at remote time points and reduce generalization at recent time points following acquisition. Conclusions: The literature suggests a key role for the mPFC in fear generalization, but empirical details vary depending on specific regions within the mPFC, the animal model used, and the timing of the generalization test. Further research is needed to elucidate the role of the mPFC in fear generalization, which could in turn facilitate more effective pharmacological interventions for pathological anxiety.

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