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Ridderbusch, Isabelle C.; Wroblewski, Adrian; Yang, Yunbo; Richter, Jan; Hollandt, Maike; Hamm, Alfons O.; Wittchen, Hans-Ulrich; Strohle, Andreas; Arolt, Volker; Margraf, Jürgen; Lueken, Ulrike; Herrmann, Martin J.; Kircher, Tilo and Straube, Benjamin (2021): Neural adaptation of cingulate and insular activity during delayed fear extinction: A replicable pattern across assessment sites and repeated measurements. In: Neuroimage, Vol. 237, 118157

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Adapting threat-related memories towards changing environments is a fundamental ability of organisms. One central process of fear reduction is suggested to be extinction learning, experimentally modeled by extinction training that is repeated exposure to a previously conditioned stimulus (CS) without providing the expected negative consequence (unconditioned stimulus, US). Although extinction training is well investigated, evidence regarding process-related changes in neural activation over time is still missing. Using optimized delayed extinction training in a multicentric trial we tested whether: 1) extinction training elicited decreasing CS-specific neural activation and subjective ratings, 2) extinguished conditioned fear would return after presentation of the US (reinstatement), and 3) results are comparable across different assessment sites and repeated measures. We included 100 healthy subjects (measured twice, 13-week-interval) from six sites. 24 h after fear acquisition training, extinction training, including a reinstatement test, was applied during fMRI. Alongside, participants had to rate subjective US-expectancy, arousal and valence. In the course of the extinction training, we found decreasing neural activation in the insula and cingulate cortex as well as decreasing US-expectancy, arousal and negative valence towards CS + . Re-exposure to the US after extinction training was associated with a temporary increase in neural activation in the anterior cingulate cortex (exploratory analysis) and changes in US-expectancy and arousal ratings. While ICCs-values were low, findings from small groups suggest highly consistent effects across time-points and sites. Therefore, this delayed extinction fMRI-paradigm provides a solid basis for the investigation of differences in neural fear-related mechanisms as a function of anxiety-pathology and exposure-based treatment.

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