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Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2004 Nov;28(7):675-85.

Understanding contextual fear conditioning: insights from a two-process model.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309, USA.


Contextual fear conditioning is an important behavioral paradigm for studying the neurobiology of learning and memory and the mnemonic function of the hippocampus. We suggest that research in this domain can profit by a better theoretical understanding of the processes that contribute to this phenomenon. To facilitate this understanding, we describe a theory which assumes that physical elements of a conditioning context represented in the brain as either (a) a set of independent features or (b) features bound into a conjunctive representation by the hippocampus which supports pattern completion. Conditioning produced by shocking a rat in a particular context, in principle, can be produced by strengthening connections between the feature representations and/or the conjunctive representation and basolateral region of the amygdala. We illustrate how this theory clarifies some of the complexities associated with the existing literature and how it can be used to guide future empirical work. We also argue that the mechanisms (conjunctive representations and pattern completion) that mediate the contribution the hippocampus makes to contextual fear conditioning are the same ones that enable the hippocampus to support declarative memory in humans.

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