Contextual fear conditioning takes place if the occurrence of threat cannot be predicted by specific cues. As a consequence the context becomes the best predictor of the threat and later induces anxiety (sustained fear response). Previous studies suggest that both the amygdala and the hippocampus are crucial for contextual fear conditioning. First, we wanted to further elucidate the neuronal correlates of long-lasting contextual threat within a highly ecologically setting created in virtual reality (VR). Second, we wanted to distinguish between initial and sustained components of the anxiety response to a threatening situation. Twenty-four participants were guided through two virtual offices for 30s each. They received unpredictable electric stimuli (unconditioned stimulus, US) in one office (anxiety context, CXTþ), but never in the second office (safety context, CXT). Successful contextual fear conditioning was indexed by higher anxiety and enhanced US-expectancy ratings for CXTþ versus CXT. Initial neural activity was assessed by modeling the onsets of both contexts, and sustained neural activity by considering the entire context duration (contrasts: CXTþ > CXT). Amygdala and hippocampus revealed sustained activity. Initial and sustained activities were found in the middle temporal gyrus, and primary motor cortex (M1). Additional initial activity was obvious in orbitofrontal (OFC), dorsomedial (dmPFC), and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC). These results suggest that entering a threatening context initially induces conditioned fear reactions (M1), recall of contingency awareness (dlPFC), and explicit threat appraisal (dmPFC, OFC). While remaining in the threatening context might involve anxiety-like conditioned responses (amygdala, M1) and the generation of a spatial map to predict where and when a threatening event may occur (hippocampus). We conclude that in humans initial versus sustained anxiety responses triggered by a threat associated context are associated with distinguishable brain activation patterns involving a fear network and a “contingency-cognitive” network, respectively.

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Department of Psychology

Andreatta, M., Glotzbach-Schoon, E., Muehlberger, A., Schulz, S.M.S., Wiemer, J, & Pauli, P. (2015). Initial and sustained brain responses to contextual conditioned anxiety in humans. Cortex, 63, 352–363. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2014.09.014