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Maladaptive Properties of Context-Impoverished Memories


The context in which sudden fearful events occur can be poorly encoded into memory. Yet, the consequences of the resulting context-impoverished memories remain unknown. We demonstrate that restricting the time available for context encoding during contextual fear conditioning causes maladaptively overgeneralized and inextinguishable fear. However, post-conditioning context exposure enables further context encoding through hippocampal reconsolidation-dependent memory updating. Updating in the conditioning context alleviates overgeneralization and restores capacity for extinction. However, updating in a similar safe context erroneously shifts fear from the dangerous to the safe context. We argue that these phenomena can be explained by uncertainty about where events occurred. Moreover, we show that a hippocampal-neocortical neurocomputational model based on this assumption successfully simulates and explains our observations. These findings reveal that context-impoverished memories are maladaptive and can be improved or distorted after recall, with implications for basic memory theory, memory distortion, and treatment of disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder.

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