Neural mechanisms of human temporal fear conditioning

Nathaniel G. Harnett, Joshua R. Shumen, Pooja A. Wagle, Kimberly H. Wood, Muriah D. Wheelock, James H. Baños, David C. Knight

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


Learning the temporal relationship between a warning cue (conditioned stimulus; CS) and aversive threat (unconditioned stimulus; UCS) is an important aspect of Pavlovian conditioning. Although prior functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) research has identified brain regions that support Pavlovian conditioning, it remains unclear whether these regions support time-related processes important for this type of associative learning. Elucidating the neural substrates of temporal conditioning is important for a complete understanding of the Pavlovian conditioning process. Therefore, the present study used a temporal Pavlovian conditioning procedure to investigate brain activity that mediates the formation of temporal associations. During fMRI, twenty-three healthy volunteers completed a temporal conditioning procedure and a control task that does not support conditioning. Specifically, during the temporal conditioning procedure, the UCS was presented at fixed intervals (ITI: 20 s) while in the control condition the UCS was presented at random intervals (Average ITI: 20 s, ITI Range: 6–34 s). We observed greater skin conductance responses and expectancy of the UCS during fixed (i.e., temporal conditioning) relative to random (i.e., control procedure) interval trials. These findings demonstrate fixed trials support temporal conditioning, while random trials do not. During fixed interval trials, greater conditioned fMRI signal responses were observed within dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, inferior parietal lobule, inferior and middle temporal cortex, hippocampus, and amygdala. The current findings suggest these brain regions constitute a neural circuit that encodes the temporal information necessary for Pavlovian fear conditioning.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)97-104
Number of pages8
JournalNeurobiology of Learning and Memory
StatePublished - Dec 1 2016


  • Amygdala
  • Fear
  • Hippocampus
  • PFC
  • Timing
  • fMRI


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