ISSN 1671-3710
CN 11-4766/R

Advances in Psychological Science ›› 2024, Vol. 32 ›› Issue (4): 557-567.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1042.2024.00557

• Conceptual Framework •     Next Articles

Cognitive neural mechanisms underlying the impact of oxytocin on conditioned fear processing

FENG Pan, ZHAO Hengyue, JIANG Yumeng, ZHANG Yuetong, FENG Tingyong()   

  1. Faculty of Psychology, Southwest University, Chongqing 400715, China
  • Received:2023-12-14 Online:2024-04-15 Published:2024-02-29
  • Contact: FENG Tingyong


Fear is an emotion closely related to evolution and is of great value to human survival and adaptation. Excessive fear may lead to the development of pathological fears such as phobias, anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress disorders. Oxytocin as a potential pharmacological agent is significant in the intervention and treatment of various pathological fears. Against this backdrop, this study takes oxytocin as a starting point to illustrate its cognitive neural mechanisms during fear acquisition, memory consolidation and reconsolidation, as well as extinction processes, offering a novel perspective for understanding and intervening pathological fears.

The project comprises four studies, each corresponding to a stage of fear: acquisition, consolidation, reconsolidation, and extinction. Study 1 focuses on the impact of oxytocin on conditioned fear acquisition, utilizing task-based fMRI technology to investigate the cognitive neural basis of oxytocin in fear acquisition. This study not only expands our cognition of neural networks related to fear acquisition and extinction but also emphasizes the regulatory role of oxytocin in this process, providing support for constructing and refining neural network models of emotional fear processing.

Studies 2 and 3 shift attentions to the consolidation and reconsolidation processes of fear memories, aiming to explore the neural basis of oxytocin affecting fear memory consolidation and reconsolidation using resting-state fMRI technology. The consolidation and reconsolidation process of fear memory were explored by pre- and post-measuring resting-state fMRI, oxytocin/placebo administration and simulating the memory consolidation and reconsolidation process. This research offers a new perspective for a more comprehensive understanding of the mechanisms underlying memory consolidation and reconsolidation.

Study 4 proposes to use task-state fMRI techniques to investigate the neural basis of oxytocin's influence on fear extinction. Using Psycho-physiological interactions (PPI) and dynamic causal modeling, we will examine how oxytocin affects the neural response patterns of conditioned fear extinction, focusing on its effects on the fear extinction network (Amygdala, Hippocampus, vmPFC, dlPFC, vlPFC, nucleus). Hippocampus, vmPFC, dlPFC, vlPFC, nucleus accumbens (NAc) and PAG brain regions); and mediation analysis or modeling to examine how oxytocin affects subjective and objective fear levels through the fear extinction network.

Significantly, individual differences, especially the relationship between trait anxiety and emotional fear processing, are incorporated into this study. By investigating individuals with high and low trait anxiety, the study explores whether oxytocin's influence on fear processing differs between these two groups. This finding provides new possibilities for individualized treatment, challenging the current one-size-fits-all approach in anxiety interventions. It theoretically supports the development of more precise intervention strategies for individuals with different levels of trait anxiety.

Finally, the paper underscores the importance of translating research findings into clinical psychiatric studies. By systematically studying the specific role of oxytocin in cognitive neural mechanisms, a scientific foundation is provided for intervening in pathological fear symptoms. This innovative point highlights the potential applications of oxytocin in disorders such as social anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder while offers a clearer theoretical basis for the precise application of oxytocin and new horizons as well as new ideas for the subsequent personalized treatment and intervention of pathological fear at the same time.

In conclusion, this study, centered around oxytocin, deeply investigates its cognitive neural mechanisms during fear acquisition, memory consolidation and reconsolidation, and extinction processes. Through the comprehensive application of task-based and resting-state magnetic resonance imaging technologies, it deepens our understanding of cognitive neural mechanisms, providing new research directions for the clinical treatment of pathological fears. This innovative research supports individualized treatment and precise pharmacological interventions, opening new avenues for future research and intervention strategies.

Key words: fear, emotional memory, amygdala, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, cognitive neural mechanisms

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