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J Neurophysiol. 2015 Aug;114(2):793-807. doi: 10.1152/jn.00656.2014. Epub 2015 May 13.

Distinct ensembles of medial prefrontal cortex neurons are activated by threatening stimuli that elicit excitation vs. inhibition of movement.

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Department of Psychology, University of California, Los Angeles, California
Department of Psychology, University of California, Los Angeles, California.


Neural circuits controlling defensive behavior were investigated by recording single units in medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and dorsolateral periaqueductal gray (dlPAG) while rats expressed conditioned fear responses to an auditory conditioned stimulus (CS; 20-s train of white noise pips) previously paired with an aversive unconditioned stimulus (US; 2-s train of periorbital shocks). The CS elicited conditioned movement inhibition (CMI; characterized by decreased movement speed and freezing) when rats had not recently encountered the US, whereas the CS elicited conditioned movement excitation (CME; characterized by increased movement speed and flight behavior) after recent US encounters. Many mPFC neurons were "strategy-selective" cells that changed their firing rates only when the CS elicited CME (15/71) or CMI (13/71) responses, whereas few mPFC cells (4/71) responded nonselectively to the CS during either response. By contrast, many dlPAG neurons (20/74) responded nonselectively to the CS, but most (40/74) were excited by the CS selectively during CME trials (and none during CMI trials). CME-selective neurons in dlPAG responded phasically after CS pips that elicited CME responses, whereas CME-selective neurons in mPFC showed tonically elevated activity before and after pips that evoked CME responses. These findings suggest that, at the time when the CS occurs, tonic firing rates of CME- and CMI-selective mPFC neurons may bias the rat's choice of whether to express CME vs. CMI responses, perhaps via projections to downstream structures (such as amygdala and PAG) that influence how sensory stimuli are mapped onto motor circuits that drive the expression of competing behaviors.


fear conditioning; infralimbic; medial prefrontal cortex; periaqueductal gray; prelimbic

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