Dopamine’s Role in Unlearning Fearful Association

Summary: Researchers report dopamine neurons may play a role in fear extinction. The study suggests targeting dopamine neurons in the ventral tegmental area could be of therapeutic benefit to reduce the impact of learned fear in PTSD and anxiety disorders.

Source: RIKEN.

Researchers at the RIKEN Center for Brain Science have discovered a circuit in the brain that is necessary for unlearning fear. Published in Nature Communications, the study details the role of dopamine in ensuring that rats stop being afraid when there isn’t anything to be afraid of anymore.

Like animals, people develop conditioned responses, especially if strong negative emotions are involved. This fact was used beautifully in the movie Jaws as the simple “da-da … da-da” frightened millions without anyone needing to actually be chased or killed by a shark. Normally, fearful reactions will lessen over time as the conditioned stimulus (the music) is dissociated from the fearful experience (watching the movie). This is called fear extinction. When fear extinction does not happen normally, it can lead to anxiety disorders such as post-traumatic stress or phobias.

In order to understand how the brain regulates both the normal and pathological situations, the team at RIKEN performed a series of experiments in rats as they extinguished fearful associations. They reasoned that in order for fear to be extinguished, first an animal needs to recognize when an expected fearful event does not happen. As dopamine neurons in some parts of the brain are known to be active when expected unpleasant events don’t happen, the team looked at dopamine neurons in a part of the brain called the VTA.

After conditioning rats to associate a specific sound (think of it as their Jaws music) with an aversive experience (a mild footshock), the team then began the extinction process. As expected, when the sound was played many times without the footshock, rats stopped behaving as if they were afraid of the sound. However, when VTA dopamine neurons were silenced just after playing the sound–exactly when the rats expected their feet to be shocked–they could not unlearn the fear response. This showed that without VTA dopamine activity at that specific time, the mental link between the sound and the shock could not be removed.

But what exactly does the VTA dopamine activity do? This was not a simple question to answer because not all VTA dopamine neurons are connected to the same brain regions. Some are connected to brain regions known for their role in storing extinction memories, while others are connected areas related to reward learning. Optogenetics allowed the team to block each of these pathways separately, and they found that they both affected fear extinction, but in opposite ways: blocking the reward pathway prevented fear extinction, while blocking the other pathway enhanced fear extinction.

dopamine neurons
Double retrograde tracer injections into NAc labeled unique populations of mShell (green, lower left) and core (red, upper left) VTA dopamine neurons (TH labeled, white, upper right). Overlay at bottom right. Arrowheads denote retrogradely labeled/TH+ cells. image is credited to RIKEN National Science Institute.

While the results are simple enough, obtaining them required technological effort. As team leader Joshua Johansen explains, “This finding was possible because we were able to manipulate dopamine neurons based on their unique brain connectivity. We used both genetic and brain-circuit specific technologies coupled with techniques for manipulating neural electrical activity in anatomically and genetically defined cell populations.” With this optogenetic setup, they were able to physically shine light into the brain and silence specific dopamine cell populations, which revealed their role in fear extinction.

Now that they have discovered two dopamine pathways that can regulate fear extinction in different ways, the team is working on ways to target these neurons with traditional pharmacology rather than optogenetics. “Pharmacologically targeting the dopamine system will likely be an effective therapy for psychiatric conditions such as anxiety disorders when combined with clinically proven behavioral treatments such as exposure therapy,” says Johansen. “In order to provide effective, mechanism-based treatments for these conditions, future pre-clinical work will need to use molecular strategies that can separately target these distinct dopamine cell populations.”

About this neuroscience research article

Source: Adam Phillips – RIKEN
Publisher: Organized by
Image Source: image is credited to RIKEN National Science Institute.
Original Research: Open access research “A dopaminergic switch for fear to safety transitions” by Ray Luo, Akira Uematsu, Adam Weitemier, Luca Aquili, Jenny Koivumaa, Thomas J. McHugh & Joshua P. Johansen in Nature Communications. Published June 27 2018.

Cite This Article

[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]RIKEN”Dopamine’s Role in Unlearning Fearful Association.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 27 June 2018.
<>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]RIKEN(2018, June 27). Dopamine’s Role in Unlearning Fearful Association. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved June 27, 2018 from[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]RIKEN”Dopamine’s Role in Unlearning Fearful Association.” (accessed June 27, 2018).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]


A dopaminergic switch for fear to safety transitions

Overcoming aversive emotional memories requires neural systems that detect when fear responses are no longer appropriate so that they can be extinguished. The midbrain ventral tegmental area (VTA) dopamine system has been implicated in reward and more broadly in signaling when a better-than-expected outcome has occurred. This suggests that it may be important in guiding fear to safety transitions. We report that when an expected aversive outcome does not occur, activity in midbrain dopamine neurons is necessary to extinguish behavioral fear responses and engage molecular signaling events in extinction learning circuits. Furthermore, a specific dopamine projection to the nucleus accumbens medial shell is partially responsible for this effect. In contrast, a separate dopamine projection to the medial prefrontal cortex opposes extinction learning. This demonstrates a novel function for the canonical VTA-dopamine reward system and reveals opposing behavioral roles for different dopamine neuron projections in fear extinction learning.

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