Mesolimbic dopaminergic pathways in fear conditioning

Prog Neurobiol. 2004 Dec;74(5):301-20. doi: 10.1016/j.pneurobio.2004.09.004.


One of the most common paradigms used to study the biological basis of emotion, as well as of learning and memory, is Pavlovian fear conditioning. In the acquisition phase of a fear conditioning experiment, an emotionally neutral conditioned stimulus (CS)--which can either be a discrete stimulus, such as a tone, or a contextual stimulus, such as a specific environment--is paired with an aversive unconditioned stimulus (US), for example a foot shock. As a result, the CS elicits conditioned fear responses when subsequently presented alone during the expression phase of the experiment. While considerable work has been done in relating specific circuits of the brain to fear conditioning, less is known about its regulation by neuromodulators; the understanding of which would be of therapeutic relevance for fear related diseases such as phobia, panic attacks, post traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, or generalized anxiety disorder. Dopamine is one of the neuromodulators most potently acting on the mechanisms underlying states of fear and anxiety. Recently, a growing body of evidence has suggested that dopaminergic mechanisms are significant for different aspects of affective memory, namely its formation, expression, retrieval, and extinction. The aim of this review is to clarify the complex actions of dopamine in fear conditioning with respect to the wide-spread distribution of dopaminergic innervation over structures constituting the fear related circuitry. A particular effort is made to understand how dopamine in the amygdala, medial prefrontal cortex and nucleus accumbens--target structures of the mesolimbic dopamine system originating from the ventral tegmental area--could relate to different aspects of fear conditioning.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Conditioning, Psychological / physiology*
  • Dopamine / metabolism*
  • Fear / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Limbic System / cytology
  • Limbic System / physiology*
  • Memory / physiology
  • Neural Pathways / physiology
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology


  • Dopamine