Learning About Safety: Conditioned Inhibition as a Novel Approach to Fear Reduction Targeting the Developing Brain.

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Adolescence is a peak time for the onset of psychiatric disorders, with anxiety disorders being the most common and affecting as many as 30% of youths. A core feature of anxiety disorders is difficulty regulating fear, with evidence suggesting deficits in extinction learning and corresponding alterations in frontolimbic circuitry. Despite marked changes in this neural circuitry and extinction learning throughout development, interventions for anxious youths are largely based on principles of extinction learning studied in adulthood. Safety signal learning, based on conditioned inhibition of fear in the presence of a cue that indicates safety, has been shown to effectively reduce anxiety-like behavior in animal models and attenuate fear responses in healthy adults. Cross-species evidence suggests that safety signal learning involves connections between the ventral hippocampus and the prelimbic cortex in rodents or the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex in humans. Particularly because this pathway follows a different developmental trajectory than fronto-amygdala circuitry involved in traditional extinction learning, safety cues may provide a novel approach to reducing fear in youths. In this review, the authors leverage a translational framework to bring together findings from studies in animal models and humans and to bridge the gap between research on basic neuroscience and clinical treatment. The authors consider the potential application of safety signal learning for optimizing interventions for anxious youths by targeting the biological state of the developing brain. Based on the existing cross-species literature on safety signal learning, they propose that the judicious use of safety cues may be an effective and neurodevelopmentally optimized approach to enhancing treatment outcomes for youths with anxiety disorders.

View the full article @ The American journal of psychiatry

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