The Physiology of Fear: Reconceptualizing the Role of the Central Amygdala in Fear Learning

Physiology (Bethesda). 2015 Sep;30(5):389-401. doi: 10.1152/physiol.00058.2014.


The historically understood role of the central amygdala (CeA) in fear learning is to serve as a passive output station for processing and plasticity that occurs elsewhere in the brain. However, recent research has suggested that the CeA may play a more dynamic role in fear learning. In particular, there is growing evidence that the CeA is a site of plasticity and memory formation, and that its activity is subject to tight regulation. The following review examines the evidence for these three main roles of the CeA as they relate to fear learning. The classical role of the CeA as a routing station to fear effector brain structures like the periaqueductal gray, the lateral hypothalamus, and paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus will be briefly reviewed, but specific emphasis is placed on recent literature suggesting that the CeA 1) has an important role in the plasticity underlying fear learning, 2) is involved in regulation of other amygdala subnuclei, and 3) is itself regulated by intra- and extra-amygdalar input. Finally, we discuss the parallels of human and mouse CeA involvement in fear disorders and fear conditioning, respectively.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Association Learning*
  • Behavior, Animal
  • Central Amygdaloid Nucleus / metabolism
  • Central Amygdaloid Nucleus / physiology*
  • Conditioning, Psychological
  • Fear*
  • Humans
  • Memory
  • Neural Pathways / physiology
  • Neuronal Plasticity
  • Neuropeptides / metabolism


  • Neuropeptides