Dissociating response systems: erasing fear from memory

Neurobiol Learn Mem. 2010 Jul;94(1):30-41. doi: 10.1016/j.nlm.2010.03.004. Epub 2010 Apr 8.


In addition to the extensive evidence in animals, we previously showed that disrupting reconsolidation by noradrenergic blockade produced amnesia for the original fear response in humans. Interestingly, the declarative memory for the fear association remained intact. These results asked for a solid replication. Moreover, given the constructive nature of memories, the intact recollection of the fear association could eventually 'rebuild' the fear memory, resulting in the spontaneous recovery of the fear response. Yet, perseverance of the amnesic effects would have substantial clinical implications, as even the most effective treatments for psychiatric disorders display high percentages of relapse. Using a differential fear conditioning procedure in humans, we replicated our previous findings by showing that administering propranolol (40mg) prior to memory reactivation eliminated the startle fear response 24h later. But most importantly, this effect persisted at one month follow-up. Notably, the propranolol manipulation not only left the declarative memory for the acquired contingency untouched, but also skin conductance discrimination. In addition, a close association between declarative knowledge and skin conductance responses was found. These findings are in line with the supposed double dissociation of fear conditioning and declarative knowledge relative to the amygdala and hippocampus in humans. They support the view that skin conductance conditioning primarily reflects contingency learning, whereas the startle response is a rather specific measure of fear. Furthermore, the results indicate the absence of a causal link between the actual knowledge of a fear association and its fear response, even though they often operate in parallel. Interventions targeting the amygdalar fear memory may be essential in specifically and persistently dampening the emotional impact of fear. From a clinical and ethical perspective, disrupting reconsolidation points to promising interventions persistently erasing fear responses from trauma memory without affecting the actual recollection.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Central Nervous System Agents / pharmacology*
  • Conditioning, Classical / drug effects*
  • Conditioning, Classical / physiology
  • Discrimination, Psychological
  • Extinction, Psychological / drug effects
  • Extinction, Psychological / physiology
  • Fear / drug effects*
  • Fear / physiology
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Galvanic Skin Response / drug effects
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory / drug effects*
  • Memory / physiology
  • Middle Aged
  • Propranolol / pharmacology*
  • Reflex, Startle / drug effects
  • Time Factors
  • Young Adult


  • Central Nervous System Agents
  • Propranolol