Infoscience

Thesis

In the pursuit of the fear engram: identification of neuronal circuits underlying the treatment of anxiety disorder

Fear and other anxiety disorders are extraordinarily robust and difficult to treat. Among the most effective treatments for anxiety disorders are exposure-based therapies, during which a patient is repeatedly confronted with the originally fear-eliciting stimulus in a safe environment so that the once fearful stimulus can be newly interpreted as neutral or safe. A fundamental element for successful exposure-based therapies is the reactivation/recall of the traumatic memory, which initiates a time-limited process called memory reconsolidation, during which a memory becomes susceptible to disruption. Presently, the neuronal subpopulations and molecular mechanisms underlying successful fear memory attenuation remain completely unknown, which represents a big gap in memory research. Therefore, the aim of this work is to first identify the neuronal subpopulations that are causally implicated in effective attenuation of remote fear memories. This will help to determine whether the original traumatic memory trace has been permanently modified or a new memory trace of safety has been superimposed over the original one. The second aim is to develop a tool that allows for the isolation of the neuronal subpopulations causally implicated in remote memory attenuation, in order to be able to delineate the epigenetic and transcriptional mechanisms at play within these subpopulations. This will help to identify a molecular signature of effective remote fear memory attenuation. The results of my research suggest for the first time that there is a small population of neurons in the dentate gyrus - that was active during the recall of fear – that needs to be reactivated during extinction to attain successful remote fear attenuation. While the inactivation of such population during extinction impairs fear attenuation, its activation ameliorates behavioral extinction. Furthermore, I have successfully established a method to isolate this neuronal subpopulation from the brain, namely by fluorescence-activated cell sorting. This tool will allow follow up studies to pursue the quest for the molecular signature of successful remote memory attenuation. Overall, these findings could help us to better understand the intricate principles of effective remote fear memory attenuation, and thus to develop new strategies that improve the treatment of anxiety disorder.

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