Temporal properties of fear extinction--does time matter?

Behav Neurosci. 2013 Feb;127(1):59-69. doi: 10.1037/a0030892. Epub 2012 Dec 10.


Fear extinction can be defined as the weakening of the expression of a conditioned response (CR) by extended experience of nonreinforcement. Conceptually, two distinct models have been invoked to account for extinction. R. A. Rescorla and A. R. Wagner (1972, A theory of Pavlovian conditioning: Variations in the effectiveness of reinforcement and nonreinforcement, in A. H. B. W. F. Prokasy (Ed.), Classical conditioning: II. Current research and theory, pp. 64-99, New York, NY, Appleton-Century-Crofts) postulated that the number of exposure trials is the primary determinant of CR decrement, whereas C. R. Gallistel and J. Gibbon (2000, Time, rate, and conditioning, Psychological Review, Vol. 107, pp. 289-344) proposed that the decisive event is the cumulated exposure time to the nonreinforced conditioned stimulus (CS) elapsed after the last CS reinforcement. We evaluated these two accounts in a human differential fear conditioning study in which CR was measured with the fear-potentiated startle response. Cumulated duration of nonreinforcement fails to explain our findings, whereas the number of trials appeared critical. In fact, many CS trials with a duration shorter than the acquisition CS duration facilitated within-session extinction, but this effect did not predict the recovery of fear.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Association Learning / physiology*
  • Conditioning, Classical / physiology*
  • Electromyography
  • Extinction, Psychological / physiology*
  • Fear / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Reflex, Startle / physiology*
  • Reinforcement, Psychology
  • Time Factors