Chronic Stress Has Lasting Influences on Fear Extinction Cued Discrimination Early in Extinction That is Mediated by the Infralimbic Cortex
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is characterized by intrusive memories from a traumatic event. Current therapies rarely lead to complete remission. PTSD can be modeled in rodents using chronic stress (creating vulnerable phenotype) combined with fear conditioning (modeling a traumatic experience), resulting in attenuated extinction learning and impaired recall of extinction. Studies typically investigate cognition soon after chronic stress ends; however, as days and weeks pass (“rest” period) some cognitive functions may improve compared to soon after stress. Whether a rest period between chronic stress and fear conditioning/extinction would lead to improvements is unclear. In Chapter 2, male rats were chronically stressed by restraint (6hr/d/21d), a reliable method to produce cognitive changes, or assigned to a non-stressed control group (CON). After chronic stress ended, fear conditioning occurred within a day (STR-IMM), or after three (STR-R3) or six weeks (STR-R6). During the first three extinction trials, differences emerged in fear to the non-shock context: STR-R3/R6 showed significantly less fear to the context than did STR-IMM or CON. Differences were unlikely attributable to generalization or to second-order conditioning. Therefore, a rest period following chronic stress may lead to improved fear extinction and discrimination between the conditioned stimulus and environment. In Chapter 3, the infralimbic cortex (IL) was investigated due to the IL’s importance in fear extinction. Rats were infused with chemogenetics to target IL glutamatergic neurons and then assigned to CON, STR-IMM or STR-R3. During the rest period of STR-R3 and the restraint for STR-IMM, the IL was inhibited using CNO (1mg/kg BW, i.p., daily), which ended before behavioral testing. STR-R3 with IL inhibition failed to demonstrate a tone-shock association as spontaneous recovery was not observed. CON with IL inhibition behaved somewhat like STR-IMM; freezing to the extinction context was enhanced. Consequently, inhibiting IL function during the rest period following chronic stress was particularly disruptive for learning in STR-R3, impaired freezing to a safe context for CON, and had no effect in STR-IMM. These studies show that time since the end of chronic stress (recently ended or with a delay) can interact with IL functioning to modify fear learning and response.