Brain mechanisms of fear extinction: historical perspectives on the contribution of prefrontal cortex

Biol Psychiatry. 2006 Aug 15;60(4):329-36. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2005.10.012. Epub 2006 Jan 17.


What brain regions are involved in regulating behavior when the emotional consequence of a stimulus changes from harmful to harmless? One way to address this question is to study the neural mechanisms underlying extinction of Pavlovian fear conditioning, an important form of emotional regulation that has direct relevance to the treatment of human fear and anxiety disorders. In fear extinction, the capacity of a conditioned stimulus to elicit fear is gradually reduced by repeatedly presenting it in the absence of any aversive consequence. In recent years there has been a dramatic increase in research on the brain mechanisms of fear extinction. One region that has received considerable attention as a component of the brain's extinction circuitry is the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). In the present article, we review the historical foundations of the modern notion that the mPFC plays a critical role in emotional regulation, a literature that was largely responsible for studies that explored the role of the mPFC in fear extinction. We also consider the role of the mPFC in a broader neural circuit for extinction that includes the amygdala and hippocampus.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavioral Research / history*
  • Behavioral Research / methods
  • Brain Injury, Chronic / physiopathology
  • Conditioning, Classical / physiology*
  • Emotions / physiology
  • Extinction, Psychological / physiology*
  • Fear / physiology*
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, 21st Century
  • Humans
  • Neural Pathways / physiology
  • Neural Pathways / physiopathology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / injuries
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiopathology