Alterations in neuronal morphology in infralimbic cortex predict resistance to fear extinction following acute stress

Kelly M. Moench, Mouna Maroun, Alexandra Kavushansky, Cara Wellman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Dysfunction in corticolimbic circuits that mediate the extinction of learned fear responses is thought to underlie the perseveration of fear in stress-related psychopathologies, including post-traumatic stress disorder. Chronic stress produces dendritic hypertrophy in basolateral amygdala (BLA) and dendritic hypotrophy in medial prefrontal cortex, whereas acute stress leads to hypotrophy in both BLA and prelimbic cortex. Additionally, both chronic and acute stress impair extinction retrieval. Here, we examined the effects of a single elevated platform stress on extinction learning and dendritic morphology in infralimbic cortex, a region considered to be critical for extinction. Acute stress produced resistance to extinction, as well as dendritic retraction in infralimbic cortex. Spine density on apical and basilar terminal branches was unaffected by stress. However, animals that underwent conditioning and extinction had decreased spine density on apical terminal branches. Thus, whereas dendritic morphology in infralimbic cortex appears to be particularly sensitive to stress, changes in spines may more sensitively reflect learning. Further, in stressed rats that underwent conditioning and extinction, the level of extinction learning was correlated with spine densities, in that rats with poorer extinction retrieval had more immature spines and fewer thin spines than rats with better extinction retrieval, suggesting that stress may have impaired learning-related spine plasticity. These results may have implications for understanding the role of medial prefrontal cortex in learning deficits associated with stress-related pathologies.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)23-33
Number of pages11
JournalNeurobiology of Stress
StatePublished - 1 Jun 2016

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015 The Authors.


  • Dendrites
  • Dendritic spines
  • Extinction
  • Extinction retrieval
  • Prefrontal cortex
  • Stress

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Endocrine and Autonomic Systems
  • Endocrinology
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience
  • Molecular Biology
  • Biochemistry
  • Physiology


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