The dorsolateral periaqueductal gray and its role in mediating fear learning to life threatening events.
The dorsolateral column of the periaqueductal gray (dlPAG) integrates aversive emotional experiences and represents an important site responding to life threatening situations, such as hypoxia, cardiac pain and predator threats. Previous studies have shown that the dorsal PAG also supports fear learning; and we have currently explored how the dlPAG influences associative learning. We have first shown that N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) 100 pmol injection in the dlPAG works as a valuable unconditioned stimulus (US) for the acquisition of olfactory fear conditioning (OFC) using amyl acetate odor as conditioned stimulus (CS). Next, we revisited the ascending projections of the dlPAG to the thalamus and hypothalamus to reveal potential paths that could mediate associative learning during OFC. Accordingly, the most important ascending target of the dlPAG is the hypothalamic defensive circuit, and we were able to show that pharmacological inactivation using β-adrenoceptor blockade of the dorsal premammillary nucleus, the main exit way for the hypothalamic defensive circuit to thalamo-cortical circuits involved in fear learning, impaired the acquisition of the OFC promoted by NMDA stimulation of the dlPAG. Moreover, our tracing study revealed multiple parallel paths from the dlPAG to several thalamic targets linked to cortical-hippocampal-amygdalar circuits involved in fear learning. Overall, the results point to a major role of the dlPAG in the mediation of aversive associative learning via ascending projections to the medial hypothalamic defensive circuit, and perhaps, to other thalamic targets, as well. These results provide interesting perspectives to understand how life threatening events impact on fear learning, and should be useful to understand pathological fear memory encoding in anxiety disorders.