Sperl, M.F.J., Wroblewski, A., Mueller, M., Straube, B., Mueller E.M. (accepted). Learning Dynamics of Electrophysiological Brain Signals During Human Fear Conditioning. NeuroImage IF: 5.902
Electrophysiological studies in rodents allow recording neural activity during threats with high temporal and spatial precision. Although fMRI has helped translate insights about the anatomy of underlying brain circuits to humans, the temporal dynamics of neural fear processes remain opaque and require EEG. To date, studies on electrophysiological brain signals in humans have helped to elucidate underlying perceptual and attentional processes, but have widely ignored how fear memory traces evolve over time. The low signal-to-noise ratio of EEG demands aggregations across high numbers of trials, which will wash out transient neurobiological processes that are induced by learning and prone to habituation. Here, our goal was to unravel the plasticity and temporal emergence of EEG responses during fear conditioning. To this end, we developed a new sequential-set fear conditioning paradigm that comprises three successive acquisition and extinction phases, each with a novel CS+/CS- set. Each set consists of two different neutral faces on different background colors which serve as CS+ and CS-, respectively. Thereby, this design provides sufficient trials for EEG analyses while tripling the relative amount of trials that tap into more transient neurobiological processes. Data-driven topographic EEG analyses revealed that ERP amplitudes were potentiated during the 33–60 ms, 108–200 ms, and 468–820 ms periods. Fear conditioning seems to prioritize early sensory processing in the brain, but also facilitates neural responding during later attentional and evaluative stages. Importantly, averaging across the three CS+/- sets allowed us to probe the temporal evolution of neural processes: Responses during each of the three time windows gradually increased from early to late fear conditioning, while long-latency (460–730 ms) electrocortical responses diminished throughout fear extinction. Our novel paradigm demonstrates how short-, mid-, and long-latency EEG responses change during fear conditioning and extinction, findings that enlighten the learning curve of neurophysiological responses to threat in humans.