AGE DIFFERENCES IN THE IMPACT OF SAFETY SIGNALS ON FEAR EXPRESSION AND REGULATION

All Authors:
Heidi Catherine Meyer, Weill Cornell Medicine, New York, NY, United States (Primary Presenter)
Francis Lee, Weill Cornell Medical College, New York, NY, United States

Evidence from both humans and animals has indicated that adolescents are sensitive to threat, and that fear is easily generalized and retained during this developmental stage. Moreover, although the emergence of anxiety disorders is highly prevalent in developing populations, conventional behavioral treatments are ineffective for a notable percentage of adolescents. An understanding of the development of fear acquisition and regulation is therefore necessary to optimize alternate behavioral treatments better suited for this period. Previously, mitigating elevations in fear responding during adolescence has only been possible through increased exposure to extinction protocols, or pharmacological intervention. However, safety learning may provide a unique avenue to address this issue. Safety signals are stimuli that predict the explicit absence of an aversive outcome and can modulate fear responding through a process known as conditioned inhibition. Our lab has recently carried out a series of studies in mice considering the ontogeny of safety learning and the extent to which safety signals are capable of modulating, or inhibiting, fear during adolescence. Notably, our lab has recently obtained evidence that exposure to safety signals can augment the rate of extinction learning in adolescents, inducing marked improvements in fear regulation relative to conventional extinction training. In addition, our data suggest age differences in how the ‘safe’ properties of a safety signal are formed and maintained. By utilizing techniques that assess brain circuit-specific activity in tandem with behavioral assays, we have also begun to investigate the mechanism by which safety signals gate the expression of fear behaviors.