News Release

Unraveling anxiety: The roles of virtual reality, companionship, and infantile amnesia

Insights into the neural mechanisms of fear learning, phobias, and chronic stress

Meeting Announcement

Society for Neuroscience

WASHINGTON — Innovative experimental approaches with human participants and animal models point to the effects of fear and stress on the brain — and suggest ways to ameliorate these impacts. The findings will be presented on Monday, November 13, 12:45–1:45 p.m. at Neuroscience 2023, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience and the world’s largest source of emerging news about brain science and health.

Fear and anxiety are normal, healthy emotional responses to some stimuli; however, there are times when they become unhealthy and interfere with our ability to function. Chronic stress and dysfunctional fear learning (such as that underlying phobias) affect millions of people. Research with virtual reality experiments and animal models are contributing to the understanding of how fear can be learned and unlearned, as well as how chronic stress changes brain connectivity and behavior.

New findings show that:

  • Fighting against a virtual reality threat with defensive body movements can alleviate fear (Ai Koizumi, Sony Computer Science Laboratories)
  • Oxytocin signaling to the amygdala plays a crucial role in the fear-reducing effects of social support in rats (Ron Stoop, University of Lausanne)
  • A virtual reality flight experience helps participants unlearn their fear of heights (Masahiko Haruno, NICT & Osaka University)
  • Chronic stress disrupts brain circuits underlying adaptive decision making and habit formation in mice (Kate Wassum, University of California, Los Angeles)
  • A brain region called the retrosplenial cortex may be key to explaining the developmental transition from infantile amnesia to persistent, adult memory (Laura DeNardo, University of California, Los Angeles)

“Many people struggle with the mental and physical health effects of excessive fear and chronic stress,” says Luiz Pessoa, a professor of psychology and director of the Maryland Neuroimaging Center at the University of Maryland. “The findings presented today shed light on how fear and stress impact the brain and suggest novel ways of unlearning dysfunctional fears.”

This research was supported by national funding agencies including the National Institutes of Health and private funding organizations. Find out more about social behavior and the brain on


Monday, November 13, 2023

12:45–1:45 p.m. EST

Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Room 202B


Fear, Stress, Anxiety Press Conference Summary

  • Virtual reality experiences emerge as a novel way to investigate and treat fear and phobias.
  • Studies of rodents reveal the brain circuits underlying behaviors associated with stress, fear memories and habit formation.

Fear in action: Fear Conditioning and alleviation through body movements
Ai Koizumi,, Abstract PSTR363.05

  • In virtual reality experiments, researchers show that humans developed specific body movement patterns after learning that a virtual avatar could “hit” them.
  • Training participants to physically fight against the violent stranger in a virtual 3D space reduced fear responses to the stranger when tested 24 hours later.
  • Results highlight the role of body movements in fear memory functions and suggest the potential for improving interventions for fear and traumatic memories though physical movement.

Social buffering switches fear to safety encoding by oxytocin recruitment of central amygdala “buffer neurons”
Ron Stoop,, Abstract PSTR162.05

  • Social support, in the form of a friend or compatriot, can reduce immediately and long-term stress and anxiety in humans and rats — an effect called the social buffering of fear.
  • After rats were trained to fear a sound, they showed less fear when another rat was nearby. This calming effect lasted even when the other rat was removed.
  • Researchers found that both acute and long-term social buffering of fear requires oxytocin signaling from the hypothalamus to the central amygdala, a brain region involved in fear.
  • The oxytocin may act as a buffer against “fear-encoding” cells during re-exposure to fearful stimuli.

Model-based extinction of the fear of heights by active flight experience in VR
Masahiko Haruno,, Abstract PSTR423.18

  • Researchers tested whether participants with a fear of heights would show lower physical signals of fear after an active virtual reality flight experience.
  • In the virtual reality flight experience, subjects were able to control a video of themselves flying over a city. Control subjects viewed the flight without controlling the movement.
  • After participating in virtual flight experience, participants showed a lower fear response when asked to walk a plank in virtual reality.
  • These findings may offer an avenue for treating fear of heights and other phobias with virtual reality experiences.

Opposing amygdala-striatal pathways enable chronic stress to promote habit formation
Kate Wassum,, Abstract PSTR289.22

  • Chronic stress is a contributing factor to many psychiatric conditions and also promotes habits, including potentially maladaptive habits.
  • Researchers showed that chronic stress in mice led to premature habit formation.
  • The amygdala, a brain region involved in stress, connects directly to the dorsomedial striatum, a brain area involved in goal-oriented behavior.  Stress disrupted these connections to disrupt flexible goal-oriented behavior and promote habit formation.  
  • Rebalancing activity in these pathways after stress exposure restored normal, flexible goal-directed behaviors.
  • Results provide insight into how chronic stress may lead to disrupted decision making and harmful habits that characterize substance use disorder and other mental disorders.

Brain-wide mapping of fear memory circuits throughout development
Laura DeNardo,, Abstract NANO11.09

  • Infantile amnesia — in which memories formed early in life are rapidly forgotten — is common across species, suggesting it is an important feature of brain development.
  • Researchers performed a brain-wide screen to identify biological mechanisms underlying infantile amnesia of fear memories in mice.
  • Research showed that a brain region called the retrosplenial cortex was unconnected to memory networks in infancy, but formed a key memory center in adults.
  • Results suggest that the maturation of the retrosplenial cortex is a key factor regulating the transition from infantile amnesia to persistent, adult memory.


The Society for Neuroscience (SfN) is an organization of nearly 35,000 basic scientists and clinicians who study the brain and the nervous system.

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