Effects of the beta-blocker propranolol on cued and contextual fear conditioning in humans

Abstract

Rationale

Beta-adrenergic receptors are involved in the consolidation of emotional memories. Yet, a number of studies using Pavlovian cued fear conditioning have been unable to demonstrate an effect of beta-adrenergic blockade on acquisition or retention of fear conditioning. Evidence for the involvement of beta-adrenergic receptors in emotional memories comes mostly from studies using fear inhibitory avoidance in rodents. It is possible that fear inhibitory avoidance is more akin to contextual conditioning than to cued fear conditioning, suggesting that context conditioning may be disrupted by beta-adrenergic blockade.

Objective

This study investigated the effects of the beta-adrenergic blocker propranolol on cued and contextual fear conditioning in humans.

Methods

Subjects were given either placebo (n=15) or 40 mg propranolol (n=15) prior to differential cued conditioning. A week later, they were tested for retention of context and cued fear conditioning using physiological (startle reflex and electrodermal activity) and subjective measures of emotional arousal.

Results

The results were consistent with the hypothesis. The skin conductance level (SCL) and the subjective measure of arousal suggested reduced emotional arousal upon returning to the conditioning context in the propranolol group, compared to the placebo group. The acquisition and retention of cued fear conditioning were not affected by propranolol.

Conclusions

These results suggest that beta-adrenergic receptors are involved in contextual fear conditioning.

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Acknowledgments

This work was supported by National Institute of Mental Health Grants MH 47840, MH 57250, MH 52384, and MH 59906.

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Correspondence to Christian Grillon.

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Grillon, C., Cordova, J., Morgan, C.A. et al. Effects of the beta-blocker propranolol on cued and contextual fear conditioning in humans. Psychopharmacology 175, 342–352 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00213-004-1819-5

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Keywords

  • Emotional memories
  • Beta-adrenergic receptors
  • Propranolol
  • Fear conditioning
  • Context conditioning
  • Fear-potentiated startle
  • Electrodermal activity