Impairments in fear conditioning in mice lacking the nNOS gene

Jonathan B. Kelley, Mara A. Balda, Karen L. Anderson, Yossef Itzhak

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

55 Scopus citations


The fear conditioning paradigm is used to investigate the roles of various genes, neurotransmitters, and substrates in the formation of fear learning related to contextual and auditory cues. In the brain, nitric oxide (NO) produced by neuronal nitric oxide synthase (nNOS) functions as a retrograde neuronal messenger that facilitates synaptic plasticity, including the late phase of long-term potentiation (LTP) and formation of long-term memory (LTM). Evidence has implicated NO signaling in synaptic plasticity and LTM formation following fear conditioning, yet little is known about the role of the nNOS gene in fear learning. Using knockout (KO) mice with targeted mutation of the nNOS gene and their wild-type (WT) counterparts, the role of NO signaling in fear conditioning was investigated. Plasma levels of the stress hormone corticosterone were measured to determine the relationship between physiological and behavioral response to fear conditioning. Contextual fear learning was severely impaired in male and female nNOS KO mice compared with WT counterparts; cued fear learning was slightly impaired in nNOS KO mice. Sex-dependent differences in both contextual and cued fear learning were not observed in either genotype. Deficits in contextual fear learning in nNOS KO mice were partially overcome by multiple trainings. A relationship between increase in plasma corticosterone levels following footshock administration and the magnitude of contextual, but not cued freezing was also observed. Results suggest that the nNOS gene contributes more to optimal contextual fear learning than to cued fear learning, and therefore, inhibition of the nNOS enzyme may ameliorate context-dependent fear response.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)371-378
Number of pages8
JournalLearning and Memory
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2009
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience


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