Know safety, no fear

Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2020 Jan:108:218-230. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2019.11.006. Epub 2019 Nov 16.


Every day we are bombarded by stimuli that must be assessed for their potential for harm or benefit. Once a stimulus is learned to predict harm, it can elicit fear responses. Such learning can last a lifetime but is not always beneficial for an organism. For an organism to thrive in its environment, it must know when to engage in defensive, avoidance behaviors and when to engage in non-defensive, approach behaviors. Fear should be suppressed in situations that are not dangerous: when a novel, innocuous stimulus resembles a feared stimulus, when a feared stimulus no longer predicts harm, or when there is an option to avoid harm. A cardinal feature of anxiety disorders is the inability to suppress fear adaptively. In PTSD, for instance, learned fear is expressed inappropriately in safe situations and is resistant to extinction. In this review, we discuss mechanisms of suppressing fear responses during stimulus discrimination, fear extinction, and active avoidance, focusing on the well-studied tripartite circuit consisting of the amygdala, medial prefrontal cortex and hippocampus.

Keywords: Amygdala; Avoidance; Cortex; Discrimination; Extinction; Fear; Generalization; Hippocampus; Safety.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Amygdala / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Avoidance Learning / physiology*
  • Discrimination Learning / physiology*
  • Extinction, Psychological / physiology*
  • Fear / physiology*
  • Generalization, Psychological / physiology*
  • Hippocampus / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Safety*