Different types of predator odors engage elements of the hypothalamic predator-responsive circuit, which has been largely investigated in studies using cat odor exposure. Studies using cat odor have led to detailed mapping of the neural sites involved in innate and contextual fear responses. Here, we reviewed three lines of work examining the dynamics of the neural systems that organize innate and learned fear responses to cat odor. In the first section, we explored the neural systems involved in innate fear responses and in the acquisition and expression of fear conditioning to cat odor, with a particular emphasis on the role of the dorsal premammillary nucleus (PMd) and the dorsolateral periaqueductal gray (PAGdl), which are key sites that influence innate fear and contextual conditioning. In the second section, we reviewed how chemical stimulation of the PMd and PAGdl may serve as a useful unconditioned stimulus in an olfactory fear conditioning paradigm; these experiments provide an interesting perspective for the understanding of learned fear to predator odor. Finally, in the third section, we explored the fact that neutral odors that acquire an aversive valence in a shock-paired conditioning paradigm may mimic predator odor and mobilize elements of the hypothalamic predator-responsive circuit.
Keywords: amygdala; fear conditioning; hypothalamic circuits; innate fear; predator odor.