Cholinergic regulation of fear learning and extinction

J Neurosci Res. 2017 Mar;95(3):836-852. doi: 10.1002/jnr.23840. Epub 2016 Oct 5.


Cholinergic activation regulates cognitive function, particularly long-term memory consolidation. This Review presents an overview of the anatomical, neurochemical, and pharmacological evidence supporting the cholinergic regulation of Pavlovian contextual and cue-conditioned fear learning and extinction. Basal forebrain cholinergic neurons provide inputs to neocortical regions and subcortical limbic structures such as the hippocampus and amygdala. Pharmacological manipulations of muscarinic and nicotinic receptors support the role of cholinergic processes in the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex in modulating the learning and extinction of contexts or cues associated with threat. Additional evidence from lesion studies and analysis of in vivo acetylcholine release with microdialysis similarly support a critical role of cholinergic neurotransmission in corticoamygdalar or corticohippocampal circuits during acquisition of fear extinction. Although a few studies have suggested a complex role of cholinergic neurotransmission in the cellular plasticity essential for extinction learning, more work is required to elucidate the exact cholinergic mechanisms and physiological role of muscarinic and nicotinic receptors in these fear circuits. Such studies are important for elucidating the role of cholinergic neurotransmission in disorders such as posttraumatic stress disorder that involve deficits in extinction learning as well as for developing novel therapeutic approaches for such disorders. © 2016 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

Keywords: acetylcholine; amygdala; basal forebrain cholinergic system; fear extinction; hippocampus; prefrontal cortex.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Acetylcholine / metabolism*
  • Animals
  • Extinction, Psychological / physiology*
  • Fear*
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Prosencephalon / anatomy & histology
  • Prosencephalon / metabolism*


  • Acetylcholine