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Nature. 2008 Jul 31;454(7204):642-5. doi: 10.1038/nature07167. Epub 2008 Jul 9.

Amygdala intercalated neurons are required for expression of fear extinction.

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Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, Newark, New Jersey 07102, USA.


Congruent findings from studies of fear learning in animals and humans indicate that research on the circuits mediating fear constitutes our best hope of understanding human anxiety disorders. In mammals, repeated presentations of a conditioned stimulus that was previously paired to a noxious stimulus leads to the gradual disappearance of conditioned fear responses. Although much evidence suggests that this extinction process depends on plastic events in the amygdala, the underlying mechanisms remain unclear. Intercalated (ITC) amygdala neurons constitute probable mediators of extinction because they receive information about the conditioned stimulus from the basolateral amygdala (BLA), and contribute inhibitory projections to the central nucleus (CEA), the main output station of the amygdala for conditioned fear responses. Thus, after extinction training, ITC cells could reduce the impact of conditioned-stimulus-related BLA inputs to the CEA by means of feed-forward inhibition. Here we test the hypothesis that ITC neurons mediate extinction by lesioning them with a toxin that selectively targets cells expressing micro-opioid receptors (microORs). Electron microscopic observations revealed that the incidence of microOR-immunoreactive synapses is much higher in ITC cell clusters than in the BLA or CEA and that microORs typically have a post-synaptic location in ITC cells. In keeping with this, bilateral infusions of the microOR agonist dermorphin conjugated to the toxin saporin in the vicinity of ITC neurons caused a 34% reduction in the number of ITC cells but no significant cell loss in surrounding nuclei. Moreover, ITC lesions caused a marked deficit in the expression of extinction that correlated negatively with the number of surviving ITC neurons but not CEA cells. Because ITC cells exhibit an unusual pattern of receptor expression, these findings open new avenues for the treatment of anxiety disorders.

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