Recent fear is resistant to extinction
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In some individuals, fearful experiences (e.g., combat) yield persistent and debilitating psychological disturbances, including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Early intervention (e.g., debriefing) after psychological trauma is widely practiced and argued to be an effective strategy for limiting subsequent psychopathology, although there has been considerable debate on this point. Here we show in an animal model of traumatic fear that early intervention shortly after an aversive experience yields poor long-term fear reduction. Extinction trials administered minutes after aversive fear conditioning in rats suppressed fear acutely, but fear suppression was not maintained the next day. In contrast, delivering extinction trials 1 day after fear conditioning produced an enduring suppression of fear memory. We further show that the recent experience of an aversive event, not the timing of the extinction intervention per se, inhibits the development of long-term fear extinction. These results reveal that the level of fear present at the time of intervention is a critical factor in the efficacy of extinction. Importantly, our work suggests that early intervention may not yield optimal outcomes in reducing posttraumatic stress, particularly after severe trauma.
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