Ensemble coding of context-dependent fear memory in the amygdala.
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After fear conditioning, presenting the conditioned stimulus (CS) alone yields a context-specific extinction memory; fear is suppressed in the extinction context, but renews in any other context. The context-dependence of extinction is mediated by a brain circuit consisting of the hippocampus, prefrontal cortex (PFC) and amygdala. In the present work, we sought to determine at what level of this circuit context-dependent representations of the CS emerge. To explore this question, we used cellular compartment analysis of temporal activity by fluorescent in situ hybridization (catFISH). This method exploits the intracellular expression profile of the immediate early gene (IEG), Arc, to visualize neuronal activation patterns to two different behavioral experiences. Rats were fear conditioned in one context and extinguished in another; 24 h later, they were sequentially exposed to the CS in the extinction context and another context. Control rats were also tested in each context, but were never extinguished. We assessed Arc mRNA expression within the basal amygdala (BA), lateral amygdala (LA), ventral hippocampus (VH), prelimbic cortex (PL) and infralimbic cortex (IL). We observed that the sequential retention tests induced context-dependent patterns of Arc expression in the BA, LA, and IL of extinguished rats; this was not observed in non-extinguished controls. In general, non-extinguished animals had proportionately greater numbers of non-selective (double-labeled) neurons than extinguished animals. Collectively, these findings suggest that extinction learning results in pattern separation, particularly within the BA, in which unique neuronal ensembles represent fear memories after extinction.