Pavlovian fear conditioning is a particularly useful behavioral paradigm for exploring the molecular mechanisms of learning and memory because a well-defined response to a specific environmental stimulus is produced through associative learning processes. Synaptic plasticity in the lateral nucleus of the amygdala (LA) underlies this form of associative learning. Here, we summarize the molecular mechanisms that contribute to this synaptic plasticity in the context of auditory fear conditioning, the form of fear conditioning best understood at the molecular level. We discuss the neurotransmitter systems and signaling cascades that contribute to three phases of auditory fear conditioning: acquisition, consolidation, and reconsolidation. These studies suggest that multiple intracellular signaling pathways, including those triggered by activation of Hebbian processes and neuromodulatory receptors, interact to produce neural plasticity in the LA and behavioral fear conditioning. Collectively, this body of research illustrates the power of fear conditioning as a model system for characterizing the mechanisms of learning and memory in mammals and potentially for understanding fear-related disorders, such as PTSD and phobias.
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