The neural circuitry of fear likely underlies anxiety and fear-related disorders such as specific and social phobia, panic disorder, and posttraumatic stress disorder. The primary pharmacological treatments currently utilized for these disorders include benzodiazepines, which act on the GABAergic receptor system, and antidepressants, which modulate the monamine systems. However, recent work on the regulation of fear neural circuitry suggests that specific neuropeptide modulation of this system is of critical importance. Recent reviews have examined the roles of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis neuropeptides as well as the roles of neurotrophic factors in regulating fear. The present review, instead, will focus on three neuropeptide systems which have received less attention in recent years but which are clearly involved in regulating fear and its extinction. The endogenous opioid system, particularly activating the μ opioid receptors, has been demonstrated to regulate fear expression and extinction, possibly through functioning as an error signal within the ventrolateral periaqueductal gray to mark unreinforced conditioned stimuli. The cholecystokinin (CCK) system initially led to much excitement through its potential role in panic disorder. More recent work in the CCK neuropeptide pathway suggests that it may act in concordance with the endogenous cannabinoid system in the modulation of fear inhibition and extinction. Finally, older as well as very recent data suggests that neuropeptide Y (NPY) may play a very interesting role in counteracting stress effects, enhancing extinction, and enhancing resilience in fear and stress preclinical models. Future work in understanding the mechanisms of neuropeptide functioning, particularly within well-known behavioral circuits, are likely to provide fascinating new clues into the understanding of fear behavior as well as suggesting novel therapeutics for treating disorders of anxiety and fear dysregulation.
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