Erasing fear for an imagined threat event

Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2012 Nov;37(11):1769-79. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2012.03.011. Epub 2012 Apr 12.


Although memory for emotionally arousing and stressful experiences is strong and resistant to change, recent years have witnessed rapidly emerging evidence for the plasticity of fear memories. Upon retrieval a memory may be rendered labile and vulnerable to the disruptive effects of amnestic agents. This process is referred to as "disrupting reconsolidation" and may point to a novel therapeutic strategy for the permanent reduction of fear in patients suffering from anxiety disorders. However, the fear-reducing effects are thus far only demonstrated for freezing reactions in rodents and autonomic fear responding in humans. If disrupting reconsolidation will be of value for clinical practice, it should also target the subjective feelings of anxiety. Using an instructed fear-learning paradigm in humans, we here tested whether disrupting reconsolidation would diminish the subjective feelings of anxiety for a noxious event that was anticipated but never actually experienced. Beta-adrenergic receptor blockade during reconsolidation strongly diminished the behavioral expression of the instructed fear memory (i.e., startle responding) as well as the subjective feelings of anxiety 24h later, yet without affecting both the physiological and cognitive component of the anticipation of threat (i.e., skin conductance responding, expectancy ratings). Together, the present findings suggest that the various memory traces of a learned fear association do not necessarily undergo reconsolidation in harmony. Considering that patients with anxiety disorders (1) often fear objects and situations that they have never actually experienced, and (2) primarily suffer from the subjective feelings of anxiety, the present findings may have important ramifications for psychotherapy.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adrenergic beta-Antagonists / pharmacology
  • Adult
  • Anxiety / drug therapy
  • Anxiety / physiopathology
  • Anxiety / psychology
  • Conditioning, Classical / drug effects
  • Conditioning, Classical / physiology
  • Extinction, Psychological / drug effects
  • Extinction, Psychological / physiology
  • Fear / drug effects
  • Fear / psychology*
  • Female
  • Galvanic Skin Response / drug effects
  • Galvanic Skin Response / physiology
  • Humans
  • Imagination / drug effects
  • Imagination / physiology*
  • Male
  • Memory / drug effects
  • Memory / physiology
  • Reflex, Startle / drug effects
  • Reflex, Startle / physiology
  • Young Adult


  • Adrenergic beta-Antagonists