Although conditioned fear can be effectively extinguished by unreinforced exposure to a threat cue, fear responses tend to return when the cue is encountered some time after extinction (spontaneous recovery), in a novel environment (renewal), or following presentation of an aversive stimulus (reinstatement). As extinction represents a context-dependent form of new learning, one possible strategy to circumvent the return of fear is to conduct extinction across several environments. Here, we tested the effectiveness of multiple context extinction in a two-day fear conditioning experiment using 3-D virtual reality technology to create immersive, ecologically-valid context changes. Fear-potentiated startle served as the dependent measure. All three experimental groups initially acquired fear in a single context. A multiple extinction group then underwent extinction in three contexts, while a second group underwent extinction in the acquisition context and a third group underwent extinction in a single different context. All groups returned 24h later to test for return of fear in the extinction context (spontaneous recovery) and a novel context (renewal and reinstatement/test). Extinction in multiple contexts attenuated reinstatement of fear but did not reduce spontaneous recovery. Results from fear renewal were tendential. Our findings suggest that multi-context extinction can reduce fear relapse following an aversive event--an event that often induces return of fear in real-world settings--and provides empirical support for conducting exposure-based clinical treatments across a variety of environments.
Keywords: Anxiety; Extinction; Fear conditioning; Fear-potentiated startle; Virtual reality.
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