Acquired fears reflected in cortical sensory processing: a review of electrophysiological studies of human classical conditioning

Psychophysiology. 2012 Sep;49(9):1230-41. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-8986.2012.01398.x. Epub 2012 Jun 21.


The capacity to associate neutral stimuli with affective value is an important survival strategy that can be accomplished by cell assemblies obeying Hebbian learning principles. In the neuroscience laboratory, classical fear conditioning has been extensively used as a model to study learning-related changes in neural structure and function. Here, we review the effects of classical fear conditioning on electromagnetic brain activity in humans, focusing on how sensory systems adapt to changing fear-related contingencies. By considering spatiotemporal patterns of mass neuronal activity, we illustrate a range of cortical changes related to a retuning of neuronal sensitivity to amplify signals consistent with fear-associated stimuli at the cost of other sensory information. Putative mechanisms that may underlie fear-associated plasticity at the level of the sensory cortices are briefly considered, and several avenues for future work are outlined.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Association Learning / physiology*
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Conditioning, Classical / physiology*
  • Electroencephalography
  • Evoked Potentials / physiology*
  • Fear / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology
  • Neurons / physiology