Revealing context-specific conditioned fear memories with full immersion virtual reality.


The extinction of conditioned fear is known to be context-specific and is often considered more contextually bound than the fear memory itself (Bouton, 2004). Yet, recent findings in rodents have challenged the notion that contextual fear retention is initially generalized. The context-specificity of a cued fear memory to the learning context has not been addressed in the human literature largely due to limitations in methodology. Here we adapt a novel technology to test the context-specificity of cued fear conditioning using full immersion 3-D virtual reality (VR). During acquisition training, healthy participants navigated through virtual environments containing dynamic snake and spider conditioned stimuli (CSs), one of which was paired with electrical wrist stimulation. During a 24-h delayed retention test, one group returned to the same context as acquisition training whereas another group experienced the CSs in a novel context. Unconditioned stimulus expectancy ratings were assayed on-line during fear acquisition as an index of contingency awareness. Skin conductance responses time-locked to CS onset were the dependent measure of cued fear, and skin conductance levels during the interstimulus interval were an index of context fear. Findings indicate that early in acquisition training, participants express contingency awareness as well as differential contextual fear, whereas differential cued fear emerged later in acquisition. During the retention test, differential cued fear retention was enhanced in the group who returned to the same context as acquisition training relative to the context shift group. The results extend recent rodent work to illustrate differences in cued and context fear acquisition and the contextual specificity of recent fear memories. Findings support the use of full immersion VR as a novel tool in cognitive neuroscience to bridge rodent models of contextual phenomena underlying human clinical disorders.





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Publication Info

Huff, Nicole C, Jose Alba Hernandez, Matthew E Fecteau, David J Zielinski, Rachael Brady and Kevin S Labar (2011). Revealing context-specific conditioned fear memories with full immersion virtual reality. Front Behav Neurosci, 5. p. 75. 10.3389/fnbeh.2011.00075 Retrieved from

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David Zielinski

AR/VR Technology Specialist

David J. Zielinski is currently a technology specialist for the Duke University OIT Co-Lab (2021-present). Previously the Department of Art, Art History & Visual Studies (2018-2020) and the DiVE Virtual Reality Lab (video) (2004-2018), under the direction of Regis Kopper (2013-2018), Ryan P. McMahan (2012), and Rachael Brady (2004-2012). He received his bachelors (2002) and masters (2004) degrees in Computer Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he worked on a suite of virtual reality musical instruments (video) under the guidance of Bill Sherman. He is an experienced VR/AR software developer, researcher, and educator. 


Kevin S. LaBar

Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience

My research focuses on understanding how emotional events modulate cognitive processes in the human brain. We aim to identify brain regions that encode the emotional properties of sensory stimuli, and to show how these regions interact with neural systems supporting social cognition, executive control, and learning and memory. To achieve this goal, we use a variety of cognitive neuroscience techniques in human subject populations. These include psychophysiological monitoring, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), machine learning,  and behavioral studies in healthy adults as well as psychiatric patients. This integrative approach capitalizes on recent advances in the field and may lead to new insights into cognitive-emotional interactions in the brain.

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