Visuocortical tuning to a threat-related feature persists after extinction and consolidation of conditioned fear

Sci Rep. 2020 Mar 3;10(1):3926. doi: 10.1038/s41598-020-60597-z.


Neurons in the visual cortex sharpen their orientation tuning as humans learn aversive contingencies. A stimulus orientation (CS+) that reliably predicts an aversive noise (unconditioned stimulus: US) is selectively enhanced in lower-tier visual cortex, while similar unpaired orientations (CS-) are inhibited. Here, we examine in male volunteers how sharpened visual processing is affected by fear extinction learning (where no US is presented), and how fear and extinction memory undergo consolidation one day after the original learning episode. Using steady-state visually evoked potentials from electroencephalography in a fear generalization task, we found that extinction learning prompted rapid changes in orientation tuning: Both conditioned visuocortical and skin conductance responses to the CS+ were strongly reduced. Next-day re-testing (delayed recall) revealed a brief but precise return-of-tuning to the CS+ in visual cortex accompanied by a brief, more generalized return-of-fear in skin conductance. Explorative analyses also showed persistent tuning to the threat cue in higher visual areas, 24 h after successful extinction, outlasting peripheral responding. Together, experience-based changes in the sensitivity of visual neurons show response patterns consistent with memory consolidation and spontaneous recovery, the hallmarks of long-term neural plasticity.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Conditioning, Psychological / physiology*
  • Evoked Potentials, Visual
  • Extinction, Psychological / physiology*
  • Fear / physiology*
  • Fear / psychology*
  • Galvanic Skin Response
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Occipital Lobe / physiology
  • Time Factors
  • Visual Cortex / physiology*
  • Young Adult