Extinction training during the reconsolidation window prevents recovery of fear

Daniela Schiller, Candace M. Raio, Elizabeth A. Phelps

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Fear is maladaptive when it persists long after circumstances have become safe. It is therefore crucial to develop an approach that persistently prevents the return of fear. Pavlovian fear-conditioning paradigms are commonly employed to create a controlled, novel fear association in the laboratory. After pairing an innocuous stimulus (conditioned stimulus, CS) with an aversive outcome (unconditioned stimulus, US) we can elicit a fear response (conditioned response, or CR) by presenting just the stimulus alone. Once fear is acquired, it can be diminished using extinction training, whereby the conditioned stimulus is repeatedly presented without the aversive outcome until fear is no longer expressed. This inhibitory learning creates a new, safe representation for the CS, which competes for expression with the original fear memory. Although extinction is effective at inhibiting fear, it is not permanent. Fear can spontaneously recover with the passage of time. Exposure to stress or returning to the context of initial learning can also cause fear to resurface. Our protocol addresses the transient nature of extinction by targeting the reconsolidation window to modify emotional memory in a more permanent manner. Ample evidence suggests that reactivating a consolidated memory returns it to a labile state, during which the memory is again susceptible to interference. This window of opportunity appears to open shortly after reactivation and close approximately 6 hrs later, although this may vary depending on the strength and age of the memory. By allowing new information to incorporate into the original memory trace, this memory may be updated as it reconsolidates. Studies involving non-human animals have successfully blocked the expression of fear memory by introducing pharmacological manipulations within the reconsolidation window, however, most agents used are either toxic to humans or show equivocal effects when used in human studies. Our protocol addresses these challenges by offering an effective, yet non-invasive, behavioral manipulation that is safe for humans. By prompting fear memory retrieval prior to extinction, we essentially trigger the reconsolidation process, allowing new safety information (i.e., extinction) to be incorporated while the fear memory is still susceptible to interference. A recent study employing this behavioral manipulation in rats has successfully blocked fear memory using these temporal parameters. Additional studies in humans have demonstrated that introducing new information after the retrieval of previously consolidated motor, episodic, or declarative memories leads to interference with the original memory trace. We outline below a novel protocol used to block fear recovery in humans.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalJournal of visualized experiments : JoVE
Issue number66
StatePublished - 2012


  • Emotional memory
  • Extinction
  • Fear conditioning
  • Issue 66
  • Medicine
  • Neuroscience
  • Physiology
  • Psychology
  • Reconsolidation
  • Skin conductance response
  • Spontaneous recovery

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Chemical Engineering
  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • General Neuroscience


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