Adrenal-dependent diurnal modulation of conditioned fear extinction learning

Behav Brain Res. 2015 Jun 1;286:249-55. doi: 10.1016/j.bbr.2015.03.006. Epub 2015 Mar 6.


Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is associated with altered conditioned fear extinction expression and impaired circadian function including dysregulation of glucocorticoid hormone secretion. We examined in adult male rats the relationship between conditioned fear extinction learning, circadian phase, and endogenous glucocorticoids (CORT). Rats maintained on a 12h light:dark cycle were trained and tested across 3 separate daily sessions (conditioned fear acquisition and 2 extinction sessions) that were administered during either the rats' active or inactive circadian phase. In an initial experiment we found that rats at both circadian phases acquired and extinguished auditory cue conditioned fear to a similar degree in the first extinction session. However, rats trained and tested at zeitgeber time-16 (ZT16) (active phase) showed enhanced extinction memory expression during the second extinction session compared to rats trained and tested at ZT4 (inactive phase). In a follow-up experiment, adrenalectomized (ADX) or sham surgery rats were similarly trained and tested across 3 separate daily sessions at either ZT4 or ZT16. ADX had no effect on conditioned fear acquisition or conditioned fear memory. Sham ADX rats trained and tested at ZT16 exhibited better extinction learning across the two extinction sessions compared to all other groups of rats. These results indicate that conditioned fear extinction learning is modulated by time of day, and this diurnal modulation requires the presence of adrenal hormones. These results support an important role of CORT-dependent circadian processes in regulating conditioned fear extinction learning, which may be capitalized upon to optimize effective treatment of PTSD.

Keywords: Circadian; Conditioned fear; Extinction; Glucocorticoid; PTSD.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Adrenal Glands / physiology*
  • Adrenalectomy
  • Animals
  • Auditory Perception / physiology
  • Circadian Rhythm / physiology*
  • Conditioning, Psychological / physiology*
  • Cues
  • Extinction, Psychological / physiology*
  • Fear / physiology*
  • Freezing Reaction, Cataleptic / physiology
  • Glucocorticoids / metabolism*
  • Male
  • Photoperiod
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley


  • Glucocorticoids