A window of vulnerability: impaired fear extinction in adolescence

Neurobiol Learn Mem. 2014 Sep;113:90-100. doi: 10.1016/j.nlm.2013.10.009. Epub 2013 Oct 25.


There have been significant advances made towards understanding the processes mediating extinction of learned fear. However, despite being of clear theoretical and clinical significance, very few studies have examined fear extinction in adolescence, which is often described as a developmental window of vulnerability to psychological disorders. This paper reviews the relatively small body of research examining fear extinction in adolescence. A prominent finding of this work is that adolescents, both humans and rodents, exhibit a marked impairment in extinction relative to both younger (e.g., juvenile) and older (e.g., adult) groups. We then review some potential mechanisms that could produce the striking extinction deficit observed in adolescence. For example, one neurobiological candidate mechanism for impaired extinction in adolescence involves changes in the functional connectivity within the fear extinction circuit, particularly between prefrontal cortical regions and the amygdala. In addition, we review research on emotion regulation and attention processes that suggests that developmental changes in attention bias to threatening cues may be a cognitive mechanism that mediates age-related differences in extinction learning. We also examine how a differential reaction to chronic stress in adolescence impacts upon extinction retention during adolescence as well as in later life. Finally, we consider the findings of several studies illustrating promising approaches that overcome the typically-observed extinction impairments in adolescent rodents and that could be translated to human adolescents.

Keywords: Adolescence; Extinction; Fear; Functional connectivity; Stress.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adolescent Development / physiology*
  • Amygdala / growth & development
  • Amygdala / physiology*
  • Amygdala / physiopathology
  • Animals
  • Extinction, Psychological / physiology*
  • Fear / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Prefrontal Cortex / growth & development
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiopathology
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*