Psychological and neural mechanisms of experimental extinction: a selective review

Neurobiol Learn Mem. 2014 Feb:108:38-51. doi: 10.1016/j.nlm.2013.09.016. Epub 2013 Oct 6.


The present review examines key psychological concepts in the study of experimental extinction and implications these have for an understanding of the underlying neurobiology of extinction learning. We suggest that many of the signature characteristics of extinction learning (spontaneous recovery, renewal, reinstatement, rapid reacquisition) can be accommodated by the standard associative learning theory assumption that extinction results in partial erasure of the original learning together with new inhibitory learning. Moreover, we consider recent behavioral and neural evidence that supports the partial erasure view of extinction, but also note shortcomings in our understanding of extinction circuits as these relate to the negative prediction error concept. Recent work suggests that common prediction error and stimulus-specific prediction error terms both may be required to explain neural plasticity both in acquisition and extinction learning. In addition, we suggest that many issues in the content of extinction learning have not been fully addressed in current research, but that neurobiological approaches should be especially helpful in addressing such issues. These include questions about the nature of extinction learning (excitatory CS-No US, inhibitory CS-US learning, occasion setting processes), especially as this relates to studies of the micro-circuitry of extinction, as well as its representational content (sensory, motivational, response). An additional understudied problem in extinction research is the role played by attention processes and their underlying neural networks, although some research and theory converge on the idea that extinction is accompanied by attention decrements (i.e., habituation-like processes).

Keywords: Amygdala; Attention; Contents of extinction learning; Erasure; Infralimbic prefrontal cortex; Prediction errors; Rescorla–Wagner model.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Attention*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Conditioning, Psychological / physiology*
  • Extinction, Psychological / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • Rats