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Ecological analysis of Pavlovian fear conditioning in rats


Zambetti, Peter et al. (2022), Ecological analysis of Pavlovian fear conditioning in rats, Dryad, Dataset,


Pavlovian fear conditioning, which offers the advantage of simplicity in both the control of conditional and unconditional stimuli (CS, US) presentation and the analysis of specific conditional and unconditional responses (CR, UR) in a controlled laboratory setting, has been the standard model in basic and translational fear research. Despite 100 years of experiments, the utility of fear conditioning has not been trans-situationally validated in real-life contexts. We thus investigated whether fear conditioning readily occurs and guides the animal’s future behavior in an ecologically-relevant environment. To do so, Long-Evans rats foraging for food in an open arena were presented with a tone CS paired with electric shock US to their dorsal neck/body that instinctively elicited escape UR to the safe nest. On subsequent test days, the tone-shock paired animals failed to exhibit fear CR to the CS. In contrast, animals that encountered a realistic agent of danger (a looming artificial owl) paired with a shock, simulating a plausible predatory strike, instantly fled to the nest when presented with a tone for the first time. These results highlight the possibility of a nonassociative, rather than standard associative, fear process providing survival function in life-threatening situations that animals are likely to encounter in nature.


National Institutes of Health, Award: MH099073