Robust BOLD responses to faces but not to conditioned threat: challenging the amygdala’s reputation in human fear and extinction learning

Renée Visser, Joe Bathelt, H. Steven Scholte, Merel Kindt

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Most of our knowledge about human emotional memory comes from animal research. Based on this work, the amygdala is often labelled the brain’s “fear center”, but it is unclear to what degree neural circuitries underlying fear and extinction learning are conserved across species. Neuroimaging studies in humans yield conflicting findings, with many studies failing to show amygdala activation in response to learned threat. Such null-findings are often treated as resulting from MRI-specific problems related to measuring deep brain structures. Here we test this assumption in a mega-analysis of three studies on fear acquisition (n=98; 68 female) and extinction learning (n=79; 53 female). The conditioning procedure involved presentation of two pictures of faces and two pictures of houses: one of each pair was followed by an electric shock (CS+), the other one was never followed by a shock (CS-), and participants were instructed to learn these contingencies. Results revealed widespread responses to the CS+ compared to CS- in the fear network, including anterior insula, midcingulate cortex, thalamus and bed nucleus of the stria terminalis, but not the amygdala, which actually responded stronger to the CS-. Results were independent of spatial smoothing, and individual differences in trait anxiety and conditioned pupil responses. In contrast, robust amygdala activation distinguished faces from houses, refuting the idea that poor signal could account for the absence of effects. Moving forward, we suggest that apart from imaging larger samples at higher resolution, alternative statistical approaches may be employed to identify cross-species similarities in fear and extinction learning.
Original languageEnglish
Article numberJN-RM-0857-21
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Early online date8 Nov 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 8 Nov 2021

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