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Biol Psychol. 2013 Jan;92(1):51-8. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2012.01.006. Epub 2012 Jan 26.

Extinction, generalization, and return of fear: a critical review of renewal research in humans.

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Department of Psychology, University of Leuven, Belgium.


The main behavioral signature of fear extinction is its fragility. This is exemplified by the renewal effect, where a change in the background context produces recovery of fear to a conditioned-and-extinguished stimulus. Renewal is the backbone of a widely accepted theory of extinction in animal research, as well as an important experimental model to screen novel treatment techniques. This has led to an explosion of fear renewal research in humans. However, the mere observation of return of fear in a renewal procedure is not sufficient to validate this particular theory of extinction in the tested sample/procedure. Here, we systematically outline a set of experimental tests that aid in evaluating alternative extinction/renewal mechanisms. We examine published renewal studies in human fear conditioning and conclude that the prevailing theory of extinction is often taken for granted, but critical tests are lacking. Including these tests in future research will not only reveal the fear extinction mechanism in humans, but also inspire further developments in extinction treatment research.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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