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Oxytocin facilitates pavlovian fear learning in males

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Eckstein, M., Scheele, D., Patin, A., Preckel, K., Becker, B., Walter, A., et al. (2016). Oxytocin facilitates pavlovian fear learning in males. Neuropsychopharmacology, 41(4), 932-939. doi:10.1038/npp.2015.245.

In human evolution, social group living and Pavlovian fear conditioning have evolved as adaptive mechanisms promoting survival and reproductive success. The evolutionarily conserved hypothalamic peptide oxytocin is a key modulator of human sociality, but its effects on fear conditioning are still elusive. In the present randomized controlled study involving 97 healthy male subjects, we therefore employed functional magnetic resonance imaging and simultaneous skin conductance response (SCR) measures to characterize the modulatory influence of intranasal oxytocin (24 IU) on Pavlovian fear conditioning. We found that the peptide strengthened conditioning on both the behavioral and neural levels. Specifically, subjects exhibited faster task-related responses and enhanced SCRs to fear-associated stimuli in the late phase of conditioning, which was paralleled by heightened activity in cingulate cortex subregions in the absence of changes in amygdala function. This speaks against amygdalocentric views of oxytocin having pure anxiolytic-like effects. Instead, it suggests that the peptide enables extremely rapid and flexible adaptation to fear signals in social contexts, which may confer clear evolutionary advantages but could also elevate vulnerability for the pathological sequelae of interpersonal trauma.