[Show abstract][Hide abstract] ABSTRACT: Fear conditioning is a widely used paradigm in non-human animal research to investigate the neural mechanisms underlying fear and anxiety. A major challenge in conducting conditioning studies in humans is the ability to strongly manipulate or simulate the environmental contexts that are associated with conditioned emotional behaviors. In this regard, virtual reality (VR) technology is a promising tool. Yet, adapting this technology to meet experimental constraints requires special accommodations. Here we address the methodological issues involved when conducting fear conditioning in a fully immersive 6-sided VR environment and present fear conditioning data.
In the real world, traumatic events occur in complex environments that are made up of many cues, engaging all of our sensory modalities. For example, cues that form the environmental configuration include not only visual elements, but aural, olfactory, and even tactile. In rodent studies of fear conditioning animals are fully immersed in a context that is rich with novel visual, tactile and olfactory cues. However, standard laboratory tests of fear conditioning in humans are typically conducted in a nondescript room in front of a flat or 2D computer screen and do not replicate the complexity of real world experiences. On the other hand, a major limitation of clinical studies aimed at reducing (extinguishing) fear and preventing relapse in anxiety disorders is that treatment occurs after participants have acquired a fear in an uncontrolled and largely unknown context. Thus the experimenters are left without information about the duration of exposure, the true nature of the stimulus, and associated background cues in the environment1. In the absence of this information it can be difficult to truly extinguish a fear that is both cue and context-dependent. Virtual reality environments address these issues by providing the complexity of the real world, and at the same time allowing experimenters to constrain fear conditioning and extinction parameters to yield empirical data that can suggest better treatment options and/or analyze mechanistic hypotheses.
In order to test the hypothesis that fear conditioning may be richly encoded and context specific when conducted in a fully immersive environment, we developed distinct virtual reality 3-D contexts in which participants experienced fear conditioning to virtual snakes or spiders. Auditory cues co-occurred with the CS in order to further evoke orienting responses and a feeling of "presence" in subjects 2 . Skin conductance response served as the dependent measure of fear acquisition, memory retention and extinction.