Blockade of Estrogen by Hormonal Contraceptives Impairs Fear Extinction in Female Rats and Women

  • Bronwyn M. Graham
    Department of Psychiatry, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Charlestown, Massachusetts
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  • Mohammed R. Milad
    Address correspondence to Mohammed R. Milad, Ph.D., Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Department of Psychiatry, Psychiatric Neuroscience Program, CNY-2614, Building 149, 13th Street, Charlestown, MA 02129
    Department of Psychiatry, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Charlestown, Massachusetts
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Published:November 15, 2012DOI:


      Fear extinction is a laboratory model of fear inhibition and is the basis of exposure therapy for anxiety disorders. Emerging evidence from naturally cycling female rodents and women indicates that estrogens are necessary to the consolidation of fear extinction. Hormonal contraceptives (HCs) inhibit estrogen production; yet, their effects on fear extinction are unknown.


      We used a cross-species translational approach to investigate the impact of HCs and estradiol supplementation on fear extinction in healthy women (n=76) and female rats (n = 140).


      Women using HCs exhibited significantly poorer extinction recall compared with naturally cycling women. The extinction impairment was also apparent in HC-treated female rats and was associated with reduced serum estradiol levels. The impairment could be rescued in HC-treated rats either by terminating HC treatment after fear learning or by systemic injection of estrogen-receptor agonists before fear extinction, all of which restored serum estradiol levels. Finally, a single administration of estradiol to naturally cycling women significantly enhanced their ability to recall extinction memories.


      Together, these findings suggest that HCs may impact women’s ability to inhibit fear but that this impairment is not permanent and could potentially be alleviated with estrogen treatment.

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