Rationale: To improve outcomes for patients undergoing extinction-based therapies (e.g., exposure therapy) for anxiety disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), there has been interest in identifying pharmaceutical compounds that might facilitate fear extinction learning and recall. Oxytocin (OT) is a mammalian neuropeptide that modulates activation of fear extinction-based neural circuits and fear responses. Little is known, however, about the effects of OT treatment on conditioned fear responding and extinction in humans.
Objectives: The purpose of the present study was to assess the effects of OT in a fear-potentiated startle task of fear conditioning and extinction.
Methods: A double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 44 healthy human participants was conducted. Participants underwent a conditioned fear acquisition procedure, after which they were randomized to treatment group and delivered OT (24 IU) or placebo via intranasal (IN) spray. Forty-five minutes after treatment, participants underwent extinction training. Twenty-four hours later, subjects were tested for extinction recall.
Results: Relative to placebo, the OT group showed increased fear-potentiated startle responding during the earliest stage of extinction training relative to placebo; however, all treatment groups showed the same level of reduced responding by the end of extinction training. Twenty-four hours later, the OT group showed significantly higher recall of extinction relative to placebo.
Conclusions: The current study provides preliminary evidence that OT may facilitate fear extinction recall in humans. These results support further study of OT as a potential adjunctive treatment for extinction-based therapies in fear-related disorders.