Neural signals of vicarious extinction learning

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Abstract

Social transmission of both threat and safety is ubiquitous, but little is known about the neural circuitry underlying vicarious safety learning. This is surprising given that these processes are critical to flexibly adapt to a changeable environment. To address how the expression of previously learned fears can be modified by the transmission of social information, two conditioned stimuli (CS + s) were paired with shock and the third was not. During extinction, we held constant the amount of direct, non-reinforced, exposure to the CSs (i.e. direct extinction), and critically varied whether another individual—acting as a demonstrator—experienced safety (CS + vic safety) or aversive reinforcement (CS + vic reinf). During extinction, ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) responses to the CS + vic reinf increased but decreased to the CS + vic safety. This pattern of vmPFC activity was reversed during a subsequent fear reinstatement test, suggesting a temporal shift in the involvement of the vmPFC. Moreover, only the CS + vic reinf association recovered. Our data suggest that vicarious extinction prevents the return of conditioned fear responses, and that this efficacy is reflected by diminished vmPFC involvement during extinction learning. The present findings may have important implications for understanding how social information influences the persistence of fear memories in individuals suffering from emotional disorders.

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