Acute stress impairs the retrieval of extinction memory in humans

Candace M. Raio, Edith Brignoni-Perez, Rachel Goldman, Elizabeth A. Phelps

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Extinction training is a form of inhibitory learning that allows an organism to associate a previously aversive cue with a new, safe outcome. Extinction does not erase a fear association, but instead creates a competing association that may or may not be retrieved when a cue is subsequently encountered. Characterizing the conditions under which extinction learning is expressed is important to enhancing the treatment of anxiety disorders that rely on extinction-based exposure therapy as a primary treatment technique. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which plays a critical role in the expression of extinction memory, has been shown to be functionally impaired after stress exposure. Further, recent work in rodents has demonstrated that exposure to stress leads to deficits in extinction retrieval, although this has yet to be tested in humans. To explore how stress might influence extinction retrieval in humans, participants underwent a differential aversive learning paradigm, in which one image was probabilistically paired with an aversive shock while the other image denoted safety. Extinction training directly followed, at which point reinforcement was omitted. A day later, participants returned to the lab and either completed an acute stress manipulation (i.e., cold pressor), or a control task, before undergoing an extinction retrieval test. Skin conductance responses and salivary cortisol concentrations were measured throughout each session as indices of fear arousal and neuroendocrine stress response, respectively. The efficacy of our stress induction was established by observing significant increases in cortisol for the stress condition only. We examined extinction retrieval by comparing conditioned responses during the last trial of extinction (day 1) with that of the first trial of re-extinction (day 2). Groups did not differ on initial fear acquisition or extinction, however, a day later participants in the stress group (n= 27) demonstrated significantly lower extinction retrieval (i.e., greater fear recovery) than those in the control group (n= 25). Our results suggest that acute stress impairs the retrieval of extinction learning and offers insight into why treatment strategies used in the clinic may be challenging to recruit in daily life where stress is pervasive.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)212-221
Number of pages10
JournalNeurobiology of Learning and Memory
StatePublished - Jul 2014


  • Cortisol
  • Extinction retrieval
  • Fear conditioning
  • Stress

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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