, Volume 3, Issue 1, pp 82-96

Pharmacological treatments that facilitate extinction of fear: Relevance to psychotherapy


A great deal is now known about the mechanisms of conditioned fear acquisition and expression. More recently, the mechanisms of inhibition of conditioned fear have become the subject of intensive study. The major model system for the study of fear inhibition in the laboratory is extinction, in which a previously fear conditioned organism is exposed repeatedly to the fear-eliciting cue in the absence of any aversive event and the fear conditioned response declines. It is well established that extinction is a form of new learning as opposed to forgetting or “unlearning” of conditioned fear, and it is hypothesized that extinction develops when sensory pathways conveying sensory information to the amygdala come to engage GABAergic interneurons through forms of experience-dependent plasticity such as long-term potentiation. Several laboratories currently are investigating methods of facilitating fear extinction in animals with the hope that such treatments might ultimately prove to be useful in facilitating exposure-based therapy for anxiety disorders in clinical populations. This review discusses the advances that have been made in this field and presents the findings of the first major clinical study to examine the therapeutic utility of a drug that facilitates extinction in animals. It is concluded that extinction is an excellent model system for the study of fear inhibition and an indispensable tool for the screening of putative pharmacotherapies for clinical use.