Intranasal oxytocin compensates for estrus cycle-specific reduction of conditioned safety memory in rats: Implications for psychiatric disorders

Neurobiol Stress. 2021 Mar 10:14:100313. doi: 10.1016/j.ynstr.2021.100313. eCollection 2021 May.


Stress and anxiety disorder patients frequently fail to benefit from psychotherapies which often consist of inhibitory fear learning paradigms. One option to improve the therapy outcome is medication-enhanced psychotherapy. Research in humans and laboratory rodents has demonstrated that oxytocin (OT) reduces fear and facilitates fear extinction. However, the role of OT in conditioned safety learning, an understudied but highly suitable type of inhibitory fear learning, remains to be investigated. The present study aimed at investigating the effect of intranasal OT on conditioned safety. To test this, Sprague Dawley rats (♂n = 57; ♀n = 72) were safety conditioned. The effects of pre-training or pre-testing intranasal OT on conditioned safety and contextual fear, both measured by the acoustic startle response, and on corticosterone plasma levels were assessed. Furthermore, the involvement of the estrous cycle was analyzed. The present data show that intranasal OT administration before the acquisition or recall sessions enhanced conditioned safety memory in female rats while OT had no effects in male rats. Further analysis of the estrus cycle revealed that vehicle-treated female rats in the metestrus showed reduced safety memory which was compensated by OT-treatment. Moreover, all vehicle-treated rats, regardless of sex, expressed robust contextual fear following conditioning. Intranasal OT-treated rats showed a decrease in contextual fear, along with reduced plasma corticosterone levels. The present data demonstrate that intranasal OT has the capacity to compensate deficits in safety learning, along with a reduction in contextual fear and corticosterone levels. Therefore, add-on treatment with intranasal OT could optimize the therapy of anxiety disorders.

Keywords: Anxiety disorder; Corticosterone; Fear; Fear inhibition; Oxytocin; Safety learning.