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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 Aug 16;108(33):13788-93. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1103214108. Epub 2011 Aug 1.

Light enhances learned fear.

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Department of Biology, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA 22903, USA.


The ability to learn, remember, and respond to emotional events is a powerful survival strategy. However, dysregulated behavioral and physiological responses to these memories are maladaptive. To fully understand learned fear and the pathologies that arise during response malfunction we must reveal the environmental variables that influence learned fear responses. Light, a ubiquitous environmental feature, modulates cognition and anxiety. We hypothesized that light modulates responses to learned fear. Using tone-cued fear conditioning, we found that light enhances behavioral responses to learned fear in C57BL/6J mice. Mice in light freeze more in response to a conditioned cue than mice in darkness. The absence of significant freezing during a 2-wk habituation period and during intertrial intervals indicated that light specifically modulates freezing to the learned acoustic cue rather than the context of the experimental chamber. Repeating our assay in two photoreceptor mutant models, Pde6b(rd1/rd1) and Opn4(-/-) mice, revealed that light-dependent enhancement of conditioned fear is driven primarily by the rods and/or cones. By repeating our protocol with an altered lighting regimen, we found that lighting conditions acutely modulate responses when altered between conditioning and testing. This is manifested either as an enhancement of freezing when light is added during testing or as a depression of freezing when light is removed during testing. Acute enhancement, but not depression, requires both rod/cone- and melanopsin-dependent photoreception. Our results demonstrate a modulation by light of behavioral responses to learned fear.

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