Relapse of extinguished fear after exposure to a dangerous context is mitigated by testing in a safe context.
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Aversive events can trigger relapse of extinguished fear memories, presenting a major challenge to the long-term efficacy of therapeutic interventions. Here, we examined factors regulating the relapse of extinguished fear after exposure of rats to a dangerous context. Rats received unsignaled shock in a distinct context ("dangerous" context) 24 h prior to auditory fear conditioning in another context. Fear to the auditory conditioned stimulus (CS) was subsequently extinguished either in the conditioning context ("ambiguous" context) or in a third novel context ("safe" context). Exposure to the dangerous context 30 min before a CS retention test caused relapse to the CS in the ambiguous and safe test contexts relative to nonextinguished controls. When rats were tested 24 h later (with or without short-term testing), rats tested in the ambiguous context continued to exhibit relapse, whereas rats tested in the safe context did not. Additionally, exposure of rats to the conditioning context--in place of the unsignaled shock context--did not result in relapse of fear to the CS in the safe testing context. Our work highlights the vulnerabilities of extinction recall to interference, and demonstrates the importance of context associations in the relapse of fear after extinction.