Fear of the unexpected: hippocampus mediates novelty-induced return of extinguished fear in rats.
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Several lines of evidence indicate an important role for the hippocampus in the recovery of fear memory after extinction. For example, hippocampal inactivation prevents the renewal of fear to an extinguished conditioned stimulus (CS) when it is presented outside the extinction context. Renewal of extinguished responding is accompanied by associative novelty (an unexpected occurrence of a familiar CS in a familiar place), the detection of which may require the hippocampus. We therefore examined whether the hippocampus also mediates the recovery of extinguished fear caused by other unexpected events, including presenting a familiar CS in a novel context or presenting a novel cue with the CS in a familiar context (e.g., external disinhibition). Rats underwent Pavlovian fear conditioning and extinction using an auditory CS and freezing behavior served as the index of conditioned fear. In Experiment 1, conditioned freezing to the extinguished CS was renewed in a novel context and this was eliminated by intra-hippocampal infusions of the GABAA agonist, muscimol, prior to the test. In Experiment 2, muscimol inactivation of the hippocampus reduced the external disinhibition of conditioned freezing that occurred when a novel white noise accompanied the extinguished tone CS. Collectively, these results suggest that the hippocampus mediates the return of fear when extinguished CSs are unexpected, or when unexpected stimuli accompany CS presentation. Ultimately, a violation of expectations about when, where, and with what other stimuli an extinguished CS will occur may form the basis of spontaneous recovery, renewal, and external disinhibition.