Neural circuits underlie our ability to interact in the world and to learn adaptively from experience. Understanding neural circuits and how circuit structure gives rise to neural firing patterns or computations is fundamental to our understanding of human experience and behavior. Fear conditioning is a powerful model system in which to study neural circuits and information processing and relate them to learning and behavior. Until recently, technological limitations have made it difficult to study the causal role of specific circuit elements during fear conditioning. However, newly developed optogenetic tools allow researchers to manipulate individual circuit components such as anatomically or molecularly defined cell populations, with high temporal precision. Applying these tools to the study of fear conditioning to control specific neural subpopulations in the fear circuit will facilitate a causal analysis of the role of these circuit elements in fear learning and memory. By combining this approach with in vivo electrophysiological recordings in awake, behaving animals, it will also be possible to determine the functional contribution of specific cell populations to neural processing in the fear circuit. As a result, the application of optogenetics to fear conditioning could shed light on how specific circuit elements contribute to neural coding and to fear learning and memory. Furthermore, this approach may reveal general rules for how circuit structure and neural coding within circuits gives rise to sensory experience and behavior.
Copyright © 2012 Society of Biological Psychiatry. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.