Fear memory extinction has several characteristic behavioral features, such as spontaneous recovery, renewal, and reinstatement, suggesting that extinction training does not erase the original association between the conditioned stimulus (CS) and the unconditioned stimulus (US). However, it is unclear whether reactivation of the original physical record of memory (i.e., memory trace) is sufficient to produce conditioned fear response after extinction. Here, we performed pharmacogenetic neuronal activation using transgenic mice expressing hM3Dq DREADD (designer receptor exclusively activated by designer drug) under the control of the activity-dependent c-fos gene promoter. Neuronal ensembles activated during fear-conditioned learning were tagged with hM3Dq and subsequently reactivated after extinction training. The mice exhibited significant freezing, even when the fear memory was no longer triggered by external CS, indicating that the artificial reactivation of a specific neuronal ensemble was sufficient to evoke the extinguished fear response. This freezing was not observed in non-fear-conditioned mice expressing hM3dq in the same brain areas. These results directly demonstrated that at least part of the original fear memory trace remains after extinction, and such residual plasticity might reflect the persistent memory.
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