No persistent attenuation of fear memories in humans: A registered replication of the reactivation-extinction effect

Cortex. 2020 Aug:129:496-509. doi: 10.1016/j.cortex.2020.04.017. Epub 2020 Jun 18.


It has been proposed that memory retrieval can destabilize consolidated memories, after which they need to be reconsolidated in order to be retained. The presentation of relevant information during memory reconsolidation could then result in the modification of a destabilized memory trace, by allowing the memory trace to be updated before being reconsolidated. In line with this idea, Schiller et al. (2010) have demonstrated that memory retrieval shortly before extinction training can prevent the later recovery of conditioned fear responding that is observed after regular extinction training. Those findings have been the subject of considerable controversy, due in part to theoretical reasons but also due to a number of failures to obtain similar results in conceptual replication attempts. Here, we report the results of a highly powered, direct, independent replication of the critical conditions of Schiller et al. (2010, Experiment 1). Due to misrepresentation of the exclusion criteria in the original Schiller et al. (2010) report, data collection was considerably delayed. When we eventually managed to attain our pre-registered sample size, we found that we could not observe any benefit of reactivation-extinction over regular extinction training in preventing recovery of conditioned fear. The results of the present study, along with the mixed findings in the literature and the misreporting in Schiller et al. (2010), give cause to question whether there is robust evidence that reactivation-extinction prevents the return of fear in humans.

Keywords: Extinction; Fear learning; Memory reactivation; Memory updating; Reconsolidation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Extinction, Psychological*
  • Fear
  • Humans
  • Memory
  • Phobic Disorders*