Bridging the interval: theory and neurobiology of trace conditioning

Behav Processes. 2014 Jan:101:103-11. doi: 10.1016/j.beproc.2013.08.016. Epub 2013 Sep 12.


An early finding in the behavioral analysis of learning was that conditioned responding weakens as the conditioned stimulus (CS) and unconditioned stimulus (US) are separated in time. This "trace" conditioning effect has been the focus of years of research in associative learning. Theoretical accounts of trace conditioning have focused on mechanisms that allow associative learning to occur across long intervals between the CS and US. These accounts have emphasized degraded contingency effects, timing mechanisms, and inhibitory learning. More recently, study of the neurobiology of trace conditioning has shown that even a short interval between the CS and US alters the circuitry recruited for learning. Here, we review some of the theoretical and neurobiological mechanisms underlying trace conditioning with an emphasis on recent studies of trace fear conditioning. Findings across many studies have implications not just for how we think about time and conditioning, but also for how we conceptualize fear conditioning in general, suggesting that circuitry beyond the usual suspects needs to be incorporated into current thinking about fear, learning, and anxiety.

Keywords: Amygdala; Consolidation; Fear; Hippocampus; Learning theory; Memory; Neurobiology.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Association Learning / physiology*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Conditioning, Classical*
  • Fear / physiology*
  • Psychological Theory*