Stress Enables Reinforcement-Elicited Serotonergic Consolidation of Fear Memory

Biol Psychiatry. 2016 May 15;79(10):814-822. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2015.06.025. Epub 2015 Jul 2.


Background: Prior exposure to stress is a risk factor for developing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in response to trauma, yet the mechanisms by which this occurs are unclear. Using a rodent model of stress-based susceptibility to PTSD, we investigated the role of serotonin in this phenomenon.

Methods: Adult mice were exposed to repeated immobilization stress or handling, and the role of serotonin in subsequent fear learning was assessed using pharmacologic manipulation and western blot detection of serotonin receptors, measurements of serotonin, high-speed optogenetic silencing, and behavior.

Results: Both dorsal raphe serotonergic activity during aversive reinforcement and amygdala serotonin 2C receptor (5-HT2CR) activity during memory consolidation were necessary for stress enhancement of fear memory, but neither process affected fear memory in unstressed mice. Additionally, prior stress increased amygdala sensitivity to serotonin by promoting surface expression of 5-HT2CR without affecting tissue levels of serotonin in the amygdala. We also showed that the serotonin that drives stress enhancement of associative cued fear memory can arise from paired or unpaired footshock, an effect not predicted by theoretical models of associative learning.

Conclusions: Stress bolsters the consequences of aversive reinforcement, not by simply enhancing the neurobiological signals used to encode fear in unstressed animals, but rather by engaging distinct mechanistic pathways. These results reveal that predictions from classical associative learning models do not always hold for stressed animals and suggest that 5-HT2CR blockade may represent a promising therapeutic target for psychiatric disorders characterized by excessive fear responses such as that observed in PTSD.

Keywords: 5-HT2C receptor; Amygdala; Fear; Optogenetics; PTSD; Serotonin.

MeSH terms

  • Amygdala / drug effects
  • Amygdala / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Association Learning / drug effects
  • Association Learning / physiology
  • Conditioning, Psychological / drug effects
  • Conditioning, Psychological / physiology
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Dorsal Raphe Nucleus / metabolism
  • Electroshock
  • Fear / drug effects
  • Fear / physiology*
  • Male
  • Memory Consolidation / drug effects
  • Memory Consolidation / physiology*
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Mice, Transgenic
  • Models, Neurological
  • Models, Psychological
  • Neurons / drug effects
  • Neurons / metabolism
  • Optogenetics
  • Receptor, Serotonin, 5-HT2C / metabolism*
  • Restraint, Physical
  • Serotonin / metabolism*
  • Serotonin 5-HT2 Receptor Antagonists / pharmacology
  • Serotonin Plasma Membrane Transport Proteins / genetics
  • Serotonin Plasma Membrane Transport Proteins / metabolism*
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / metabolism
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*


  • 5-hydroxytryptamine2C receptor, mouse
  • Receptor, Serotonin, 5-HT2C
  • Serotonin 5-HT2 Receptor Antagonists
  • Serotonin Plasma Membrane Transport Proteins
  • Slc6a4 protein, mouse
  • Serotonin