Dissecting the Function of Hippocampal Oscillations in a Human Anxiety Model

J Neurosci. 2017 Jul 19;37(29):6869-6876. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1834-16.2017. Epub 2017 Jun 16.


Neural oscillations in hippocampus and medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) are a hallmark of rodent anxiety models that build on conflict between approach and avoidance. Yet, the function of these oscillations, and their expression in humans, remain elusive. Here, we used magnetoencephalography (MEG) to investigate neural oscillations in a task that simulated approach-avoidance conflict, wherein 23 male and female human participants collected monetary tokens under a threat of virtual predation. Probability of threat was signaled by color and learned beforehand by direct experience. Magnitude of threat corresponded to a possible monetary loss, signaled as a quantity. We focused our analyses on an a priori defined region-of-interest, the bilateral hippocampus. Oscillatory power under conflict was linearly predicted by threat probability in a location consistent with right mid-hippocampus. This pattern was specific to the hippocampus, most pronounced in the gamma band, and not explained by spatial movement or anxiety-like behavior. Gamma power was modulated by slower theta rhythms, and this theta modulation increased with threat probability. Furthermore, theta oscillations in the same location showed greater synchrony with mPFC theta with increased threat probability. Strikingly, these findings were not seen in relation to an increase in threat magnitude, which was explicitly signaled as a quantity and induced similar behavioral responses as learned threat probability. Thus, our findings suggest that the expression of hippocampal and mPFC oscillatory activity in the context of anxiety is specifically linked to threat memory. These findings resonate with neurocomputational accounts of the role played by hippocampal oscillations in memory.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT We use a biologically relevant approach-avoidance conflict test in humans while recording neural oscillations with magnetoencephalography to investigate the expression and function of hippocampal oscillations in human anxiety. Extending nonhuman studies, we can assign a possible function to hippocampal oscillations in this task, namely threat memory communication. This blends into recent attempts to elucidate the role of brain synchronization in defensive responses to threat.

Keywords: MEG; anxiety; approach–avoidance; cingulate cortex; hippocampus; theta oscillations.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Anxiety / physiopathology*
  • Avoidance Learning*
  • Biological Clocks*
  • Brain Waves*
  • Conflict, Psychological*
  • Female
  • Hippocampus / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Young Adult