J. Neurosci. 2013;33 17986-17994
The ability to distinguish danger from safety is crucial for survival. On the other hand, anxiety disorders can result from failures to dissociate safe cues from those that predict dangerous outcomes. The amygdala plays a major role in learning and signaling danger, and recently, evidence accumulates that it also acquires information to signal safety. Traditionally, safety is explored by paradigms that change the value of a previously dangerous cue, such as extinction or reversal; or by paradigms showing that a safe cue can inhibit responses to another danger-predicting cue, as in conditioned-inhibition. In real-life scenarios, many cues are never paired or tested with danger and remain neutral all along. A detailed study of neural responses to unpaired conditioned-stimulus (CS−) can therefore indicate whether information on safety-by-comparison is also acquired in the amygdala. We designed a multiple-CS study, with CS− from both visual and auditory modalities. Using discriminative aversive-conditioning, we find that responses in the primate amygdala develop for CS− of the same modality and of a different modality from that of the aversive CS+. Moreover, we find that responses are comparable in proportion, sign (increase/decrease), onset, and magnitude. These results indicate that the primate amygdala actively acquires signals about safety, and strengthen the hypothesis that failure in amygdala processing can result in failure to distinguish dangerous cues from safe ones and lead to maladaptive behaviors.