Neural correlates of individual differences in fear learning

Annmarie MacNamara*, Christine A. Rabinak, Daniel A. Fitzgerald, Xiaohong Joe Zhou, Stewart A Shankman, Mohammed R. Milad, K. Luan Phan

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Scopus citations


Variability in fear conditionability is common, and clarity regarding the neural regions responsible for individual differences in fear conditionability could uncover brain-based biomarkers of resilience or vulnerability to trauma-based psychopathologies (e.g., post-traumatic stress disorder). In recent years, neuroimaging work has yielded a detailed understanding of the neural mechanisms underlying fear conditioning common across participants, however only a minority of studies have investigated the brain basis of inter-individual variation in fear learning. Moreover, the majority of these studies have employed small sample sizes (mean n=. 17; range n=. 5-27) and all have failed to meet the minimum recommended sample size for functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies of individual differences. Here, using fMRI, we analyzed blood-oxygenation level dependent (BOLD) response recorded simultaneously with skin conductance response (SCR) and ratings of unconditioned stimulus (US) expectancy in 49 participants undergoing Pavlovian fear conditioning. On average, participants became conditioned to the conditioned stimulus (CS+; higher US expectancy ratings and SCR for the CS+ compared to the unpaired conditioned stimulus, CS-); the CS+ also robustly increased activation in the bilateral insula. Amygdala activation was revealed from a regression analysis that incorporated individual differences in fear conditionability (i.e., a between-subjects regressor of mean CS+. >. CS- SCR). By replicating results observed using much smaller sample sizes, the results confirm that variation in amygdala reactivity covaries with individual differences in fear conditionability. The link between behavior (SCR) and brain (amygdala reactivity) may be a putative endophenotype for the acquisition of fear memories.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)34-41
Number of pages8
JournalBehavioural Brain Research
StatePublished - Jul 1 2015


  • Amygdala
  • FMRI
  • Fear conditioning
  • Individual differences
  • SCR
  • Skin conductance response

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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