Background: Recent reports suggest that one type of learning, fear conditioning to context, requires more neural processing than a related type, fear conditioning to tone. To determine whether these types of learning were differentially affected by anesthesia, the authors applied isoflurane during the training phases of fear conditioning paradigms for freezing to context and freezing to tone.
Methods: The authors trained seven groups of eight rats to fear tone by administering a tone (conditioned stimulus) while breathing various concentrations of isoflurane from 0.00 to 0.75 minimum alveolar concentration (MAC; one concentration per group) separated by 0.12-MAC steps. On the succeeding day, and in the absence of isoflurane, the authors presented the tone (without shock) in a different context (different cage shape and odor) and measured the time each rat froze (became immobile). Six other groups of eight rats were trained to fear context by applying the shock in the absence of a tone but in the presence of environmental cues such as cage shape, texture, and odor. Fear to context was determined the succeeding day by returning the rat to the training cage (without shock) and measuring duration of freezing. Control groups (16 per group) received 0.75 MAC isoflurane but no foot shocks. Group scores were compared using analysis of variance, and the ED50 values for quantal responses of individual rats were calculated using logistic regression.
Results: Conditioning to context occurred at 0.00 and 0.13 MAC (P < 0.05 compared with unshocked control) but not 0.25 MAC; the ED50 was 0.25 +/- 0.03 MAC (mean +/- SEM). In contrast, conditioning to tone occurred at 0.48 MAC (P < 0.05) but not 0.62 MAC; the ED50 was 0.47 +/- 0.02 MAC (P < 0.01 for the difference between ED50 values).
Conclusions: Suppression of fear conditioning to tone required approximately twice the isoflurane concentration that suppressed fear conditioning to context. Thus, the concentration of anesthetic required to suppress learning may depend on the neural substrates of learning. Our results suggest that isoflurane concentrations greater than 0.5 MAC may be needed to suppress both forms of fear conditioning.