Electrophysiological Signatures of Fear Conditioning: From Methodological Considerations to Catecholaminergic Mechanisms and Translational Perspectives
Fear conditioning describes a learning mechanism during which a specific stimulus gets associated with an aversive event (i.e., an unconditioned stimulus; US). Thereby, this initially neutral or arbitrary stimulus becomes a so-called “conditioned” stimulus (CS), which elicits a conditioned threat re...
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|Fear conditioning describes a learning mechanism during which a specific stimulus gets associated with an aversive event (i.e., an unconditioned stimulus; US). Thereby, this initially neutral or arbitrary stimulus becomes a so-called “conditioned” stimulus (CS), which elicits a conditioned threat response. Fear extinction refers to the decrease in conditioned threat responses as soon as the CS is repeatedly presented in the absence of the US. While fear conditioning is an important learning model for understanding the etiology and maintenance of anxiety and fear-related disorders, extinction learning is considered to reflect the most important learning process of exposure therapy. Neurophysiological signatures of fear conditioning have been widely studied in rodents, leading to the development of groundbreaking neurobiological models, including brain regions such as the amygdala, insula, and prefrontal areas. These models aim to explain neural mechanisms of threat processing, with the ultimate goal to improve treatment strategies for pathological fear. Recording intracranial electrical activity of single units in animals offers the opportunity to uncover neural processes involved in threat processing with excellent spatial and temporal resolution. A large body of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies have helped to translate this knowledge about the anatomy of fear conditioning into the human realm. fMRI is an imaging technique with a high spatial resolution that is well suited to study slower brain processes. However, the temporal resolution of fMRI is relatively poor. By contrast, electroencephalography (EEG) is a neuroscientific method to capture fast and transient cortical processes. While EEG offers promising opportunities to unravel the speed of neural threat processing, it also provides the possibility to study oscillatory brain activity (e.g., prefrontal theta oscillations). The present thesis contains six research manuscripts, describing fear conditioning studies that mainly applied EEG methods in combination with other central (fMRI) and peripheral (skin conductance, heart rate, and fear-potentiated startle) measures. A special focus of this thesis lies in methodological considerations for EEG fear conditioning research. In addition, catecholaminergic mechanisms are studied, with the ultimate goal of opening up new translational perspectives. Taken together, the present thesis addresses several methodological challenges for neuroscientific (in particular, EEG) fear conditioning research (e.g., appropriate US types and experimental designs, signal-to-noise ratio, simultaneous EEG-fMRI). Furthermore, this thesis gives critical insight into catecholaminergic (noradrenaline and dopamine) mechanisms. A variety of neuroscientific methods (e.g., EEG, fMRI, peripheral physiology, pharmacological manipulation, genetic associations) have been combined, an approach that allowed us (a) to translate knowledge from animal studies to human research, and (b) to stimulate novel clinical directions.