Rationale: A promising strategy to prevent a return of fear after exposure-based therapy in anxiety disorders is to pharmacologically enhance the extinction memory consolidation presumed to occur after exposure. Accumulating evidence suggests that the effect of a number of pharmacological consolidation enhancers depends on a successful fear reduction during exposure. Here, we employed the dopamine precursor L-DOPA to clarify whether its documented potential to enhance extinction memory consolidation is dependent on successful fear extinction.
Methods: In two double-blind, randomized and placebo-controlled experiments (experiment 1: N = 79, experiment 2: N = 32) comprising fear conditioning (day 1), extinction followed by administration of 150 mg L-DOPA or placebo (day 2) and a memory test (day 3) in healthy male adults, conditioned responses were assessed as differential skin conductance responses. We tested whether the effect of L-DOPA on conditioned responses at test depended on conditioned responses at the end of extinction in an experiment with a short (10 trials, experiment 1) and long (25 trials, experiment 2) extinction session.
Results: In both experiments, the effect of L-DOPA was dependent on conditioned responses at the end of extinction. That is, post-extinction L-DOPA compared to placebo administration reduced conditioned responses at test only in participants showing a complete reduction of conditioned fear at the end of extinction.
Conclusion: The results support the potential use of L-DOPA as a pharmacological adjunct to exposure treatment, but point towards a common boundary condition for pharmacological consolidation enhancers: a successful reduction of fear in the exposure session.
Keywords: Anxiety; Cognitive-behavioural therapy; Dopamine; Exposure treatment; Extinction; Fear conditioning; Memory consolidation; Post-traumatic stress disorder.