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Neuropsychopharmacology. 2016 Dec;41(13):3092-3102. doi: 10.1038/npp.2016.127. Epub 2016 Jul 15.

Therapeutic Effects of Extinction Learning as a Model of Exposure Therapy in Rats.

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Department of Pharmacology and Center for Biomedical Neuroscience, University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, San Antonio, TX, USA.


Current treatments for stress-related psychiatric disorders, such as depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), are inadequate. Cognitive behavioral psychotherapies, including exposure therapy, are an alternative to pharmacotherapy, but the neurobiological mechanisms are unknown. Preclinical models demonstrating therapeutic effects of behavioral interventions are required to investigate such mechanisms. Exposure therapy bears similarity to extinction learning. Thus, we investigated the therapeutic effects of extinction learning as a behavioral intervention to model exposure therapy in rats, testing its effectiveness in reversing chronic stress-induced deficits in cognitive flexibility and coping behavior that resemble dimensions of depression and PTSD. Rats were fear-conditioned by pairing a tone with footshock, and then exposed to chronic unpredictable stress (CUS) that induces deficits in cognitive set-shifting and active coping behavior. They then received an extinction learning session as a therapeutic intervention by repeated exposure to the tone with no shock. Effects on cognitive flexibility and coping behavior were assessed 24 h later on the attentional set-shifting test or shock-probe defensive burying test, respectively. Extinction reversed the CUS-induced deficits in cognitive flexibility and coping behavior, and increased phosphorylation of ribosomal protein S6 in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) of stress-compromised rats, suggesting a role for activity-dependent protein synthesis in the therapeutic effect. Inhibiting protein synthesis by microinjecting anisomycin into mPFC blocked the therapeutic effect of extinction on cognitive flexibility. These results demonstrate the utility of extinction as a model by which to study mechanisms underlying exposure therapy, and suggest these mechanisms involve protein synthesis in the mPFC, the further study of which may identify novel therapeutic targets.

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