The inability to suppress inappropriate fear responses is the hallmark of anxiety disorders, such as post- traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic, and phobia disorders. Extinction of fear occurs during exposure therapy;however, this is temporary and fear often re-emerges with the passage of time (spontaneous recovery), undermining the maintenance of therapeutic gains. Enhancing the neural and neurochemical substrates involved in retention of extinction memory will be critical to solving this challenge. Animal studies have shown that activation of the cannabinoid system within the amgydala, hippocampus, and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (AMYG, HPC, vmPFC, respectively), brain structures critical to fear expression and extinction learning, enhances fear extinction and its retention. Specifically, CB1 receptor agonists, such as ?9- tetrahydrocannibinol (THC), can facilitate extinction recall by preventing recovery of extinguished fear in rats. However, this phenomenon has not been, but should be, investigated in humans. This proof-of-concept project specifically aims to assess the effects of THC on the recall of extinction learning and underlying neural circuit activation (HPC, vmPFC) when tested 24 hours and 1 week after extinction training, and to determine if the maintenance of extinction retention (1 week later) is mediated by the enhancement of vmPFC-HPC activation by THC observed during a recall test 24 hours after extinction learning. In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, between-subjects design, we will couple a standard Pavlovian fear extinction paradigm in fMRI and simultaneous skin conductance recordings with an acute pharmacological challenge with oral, synthetic THC prior to extinction learning in healthy adult volunteers (n=80) and test extinction retention and maintenance of extinction learning at 24 hours and 1 week later, as well as fear renewal. This proof-of-concept study provides the most translational, impactful, informative, and critical test and first step towards the development of cannabinoid modulators as an adjunctive strategy to exposure-based therapies to augment extinction retention and prevent the return of fear memories in patients with PTSD and other anxiety disorders. Relevance: Exposure therapy for anxiety disorders relies on extinction learning and is only temporarily or partially effective for many patients. This study will test if a cannabinoid agonist can enhance extinction retention and its neural substrates, and translate emerging findings from animal studies that the cannabinoid system is a promising target for optimizing the learning that goes on during exposure treatment in order to enhance and maintain its success.

Public Health Relevance

The goal of the current proposal is to investigate the effects of a cannabinoid drug on the memory of extinguished fear in humans and the brain circuitry important for the recall of extinction learning. Our findings will translate previous discoveries from animal studies to humans and increase our understanding of the neurobiological mechanisms supporting retention of extinction memory. This proof-of-concept study is a critical translational first step towards the development of cannabinoid modulators as an adjunctive strategy to exposure-based therapies to augment extinction learning and prevent the return of fear memories in patients with post-traumatic stress and other anxiety disorders.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
Exploratory/Developmental Grants (R21)
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Neurobiology of Learning and Memory Study Section (LAM)
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Meinecke, Douglas L
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University of Illinois at Chicago
Schools of Medicine
United States
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Rabinak, Christine A; Phan, K Luan (2014) Cannabinoid modulation of fear extinction brain circuits: a novel target to advance anxiety treatment. Curr Pharm Des 20:2212-7
Rabinak, Christine A; Angstadt, Mike; Lyons, Maryssa et al. (2014) Cannabinoid modulation of prefrontal-limbic activation during fear extinction learning and recall in humans. Neurobiol Learn Mem 113:125-34