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Neurobiol Learn Mem. 2011 Jul;96(1):35-40. doi: 10.1016/j.nlm.2011.04.012. Epub 2011 Apr 23.

Is an epigenetic switch the key to persistent extinction?

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Department of Behavioral Neuroscience, Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, OR 97239, United States.


Many studies of learning have demonstrated that conditioned behavior can be eliminated when previously established relations between stimuli are severed. This extinction process has been extremely important for the development of learning theories and, more recently, for delineating the neurobiological mechanisms that underlie memory. A key finding from behavioral studies of extinction is that extinction eliminates behavior without eliminating the original memory; extinguished behavior often returns with time or with a return to the context in which the original learning occurred. This persistence of the original memory after extinction creates a challenge for clinical applications that use extinction as part of a treatment intervention. Consequently, a goal of recent neurobiological research on extinction is to identify potential pharmacological targets that may result in persistent extinction. Drugs that promote epigenetic changes are particularly promising because they can result in a long-term molecular signal that, combined with the appropriate behavioral treatment, can cause persistent changes in behavior induced by extinction. We will review evidence demonstrating extinction enhancements by drugs that target epigenetic mechanisms and will describe some of the challenges that epigenetic approaches face in promoting persistent suppression of memories.

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