Neural Substrates Mediating Human Delay and Trace Fear Conditioning

David C. Knight, Dominic T. Cheng, Christine N. Smith, Elliot A. Stein, Fred J. Helmstetter

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

187 Scopus citations


Previous functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies with human subjects have explored the neural substrates involved in forming associations in Pavlovian fear conditioning. Most of these studies used delay procedures, in which the conditioned stimulus (CS) and unconditioned stimulus (UCS) coterminate. Less is known about brain regions that support trace conditioning, a procedure in which an interval of time (trace interval) elapses between CS termination and UCS onset. Previous work suggests significant overlap in the neural circuitry supporting delay and trace fear conditioning, although trace conditioning requires recruitment of additional brain regions. In the present event-related fMRI study, skin conductance and continuous measures of UCS expectancy were recorded concurrently with whole-brain blood oxygenation level-dependent (BOLD) imaging during direct comparison of delay and trace discrimination learning. Significant activation was observed within the visual cortex for all CSs. Anterior cingulate and medial thalamic activity reflected associative learning common to both delay and trace procedures. Activations within the supplementary motor area (SMA), frontal operculum, middle frontal gyri, and inferior parietal lobule were specifically associated with trace interval processing. The hippocampus displayed BOLD signal increases early in training during all conditions; however, differences were observed in hippocampal response magnitude related to the accuracy of predicting UCS presentations. These results demonstrate overlapping patterns of activation within the anterior cingulate, medial thalamus, and visual cortex during delay and trace procedures, with additional recruitment of the hippocampus, SMA, frontal operculum, middle frontal gyrus, and inferior parietal lobule during trace conditioning. These data suggest that the hippocampus codes temporal information during trace conditioning, whereas brain regions supporting working memory processes maintain the CS-UCS representation during the trace interval.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)218-228
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 7 2004
Externally publishedYes


  • Deactivation
  • Delay conditioning
  • Emotion
  • FMRI
  • Hippocampus
  • Learning and memory
  • Pavlovian conditioning
  • Trace conditioning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)


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