Caloric restriction enhances fear extinction learning in mice
Fear extinction learning, the ability to reassess a learned cue of danger as safe when it no longer predicts aversive events, is often dysregulated in anxiety disorders. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI's) enhance neural plasticity and their ability to enhance fear extinction learning may explain their anxiolytic properties. Caloric restriction (CR) has SSRI-like effects on neural plasticity and anxiety-related behavior. We implemented CR in mice to determine its effects on conditioned-fear responses. Wild type and serotonin transporter (SERT) knockout mice underwent CR for 7 days leading to significant weight loss. Mice were then tested for cued fear learning and anxiety-related behavior. CR markedly enhanced fear extinction learning and its retention in adolescent female mice, and adults of both sexes. These effects of CR were absent in SERT knockout mice. Moreover, CR phenocopied behavioral and molecular effects of chronic fluoxetine, but there was no additive effect of CR in fluoxetine-treated mice. These results demonstrate that CR enhances fear extinction learning through a SERT-dependent mechanism. These results may have implications for eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa (AN), in which there is a high prevalence of anxiety before the onset of dietary restriction and support proposals that in AN, CR is a motivated effort to control dysregulated fear responses and elevated anxiety.