Background: Following fear conditioning (FC), ex vivo evidence suggests that early dynamics of cellular and molecular plasticity in amygdala and hippocampal circuits mediate responses to fear. Such altered dynamics in fear circuits are thought to be etiologically related to anxiety disorders including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Consistent with this, neuroimaging studies of individuals with established PTSD in the months after trauma have revealed changes in brain regions responsible for processing fear. However, whether early changes in fear circuits can be captured in vivo is not known.
Methods: We hypothesized that in vivo magnetic resonance diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) would be sensitive to rapid microstructural changes elicited by FC in an experimental mouse PTSD model. We employed a repeated measures paired design to compare in vivo DTI measurements before, one hour after, and one day after FC-exposed mice (n=18).
Results: Using voxel-wise repeated measures analysis, fractional anisotropy (FA) significantly increased then decreased in amygdala, decreased then increased in hippocampus, and was increasing in cingulum and adjacent gray matter one hour and one day post-FC respectively. These findings demonstrate that DTI is sensitive to early changes in brain microstructure following FC, and that FC elicits distinct, rapid in vivo responses in amygdala and hippocampus.
Conclusions: Our results indicate that DTI can detect rapid microstructural changes in brain regions known to mediate fear conditioning in vivo. DTI indices could be explored as a translational tool to capture potential early biological changes in individuals at risk for developing PTSD.