Mechanisms of fear extinction

Mol Psychiatry. 2007 Feb;12(2):120-50. doi: 10.1038/ Epub 2006 Dec 12.


Excessive fear and anxiety are hallmarks of a variety of disabling anxiety disorders that affect millions of people throughout the world. Hence, a greater understanding of the brain mechanisms involved in the inhibition of fear and anxiety is attracting increasing interest in the research community. In the laboratory, fear inhibition most often is studied through a procedure in which a previously fear conditioned organism is exposed to a fear-eliciting cue in the absence of any aversive event. This procedure results in a decline in conditioned fear responses that is attributed to a process called fear extinction. Extensive empirical work by behavioral psychologists has revealed basic behavioral characteristics of extinction, and theoretical accounts have emphasized extinction as a form of inhibitory learning as opposed to an erasure of acquired fear. Guided by this work, neuroscientists have begun to dissect the neural mechanisms involved, including the regions in which extinction-related plasticity occurs and the cellular and molecular processes that are engaged. The present paper will cover behavioral, theoretical and neurobiological work, and will conclude with a discussion of clinical implications.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anxiety / physiopathology*
  • Conditioning, Psychological / physiology*
  • Extinction, Psychological / physiology*
  • Fear / physiology*
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology*