Context Abnormalities in associative memory processes, such as Pavlovian fear conditioning and extinction, have been observed in schizophrenia. The retrieval of fear extinction memories (safety signals) may be particularly affected; although schizophrenic patients can extinguish conditioned fear, they show a deficit in retrieving fear extinction memories after a delay. The neurobiological basis of this abnormality is unknown, but clues have emerged from studies in rodents and humans demonstrating that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) is a key mediator of extinction memory retrieval.
Objective To measure autonomic and neural responses during the acquisition and extinction of conditioned fear and the delayed recall of fear and extinction memories in patients with schizophrenia and healthy control participants.
Design Cross-sectional case control, functional magnetic resonance imaging study.
Setting Academic medical center.
Participants Twenty schizophrenic patients and 17 healthy control participants demographically matched to the patient group.
Main Outcome Measures Skin conductance and blood oxygen level–dependent responses.
Results During fear conditioning, schizophrenic patients showed blunted autonomic responses and abnormal blood oxygen level–dependent responses, relative to control participants, within the posterior cingulate gyrus, hippocampus, and other regions. Several of these abnormalities were linked to negative symptoms. During extinction learning, patients with schizophrenia and control participants showed comparable autonomic and neural responses. Twenty-four hours after the learning phases, the control subjects exhibited decreased fear and increased vmPFC responses in the extinction (safe) context as expected, indicating successful retention of the extinction memory. In contrast, the schizophrenic patients showed inappropriately elevated fear and poor vmPFC responses in the safe context.
Conclusion Failure of extinction memory retrieval in schizophrenia is associated with vmPFC dysfunction. In future studies, abnormalities in fear learning and extinction recall may serve as quantitative phenotypes that can be linked to genetic, symptom, or outcome profiles in schizophrenia and those at risk for the disorder.