Strong Aversive Conditioning Triggers a Long-Lasting Generalized Aversion


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Generalization is an adaptive mnemonic process in which an animal can leverage past learning experiences to navigate future scenarios, but overgeneralization is a hallmark feature of anxiety disorders. Therefore, understanding the synaptic plasticity mechanisms that govern memory generalization and its persistence is an important goal. Here, we demonstrate that strong CTA conditioning results in a long-lasting generalized aversion that persists for at least 2 weeks. Using brain slice electrophysiology and activity-dependent labeling of the conditioning-active neuronal ensemble within the gustatory cortex, we find that strong CTA conditioning induces a long-lasting increase in synaptic strengths that occurs uniformly across superficial and deep layers of GC. Repeated exposure to salt, the generalized tastant, causes a rapid attenuation of the generalized aversion that correlates with a reversal of the CTA-induced increases in synaptic strength. Unlike the uniform strengthening that happens across layers, reversal of the generalized aversion results in a more pronounced depression of synaptic strengths in superficial layers. Finally, the generalized aversion and its reversal do not impact the acquisition and maintenance of the aversion to the conditioned tastant (saccharin). The strong correlation between the generalized aversion and synaptic strengthening, and the reversal of both in superficial layers by repeated salt exposure, strongly suggests that the synaptic changes in superficial layers contribute to the formation and reversal of the generalized aversion. In contrast, the persistence of synaptic strengthening in deep layers correlates with the persistence of CTA. Taken together, our data suggest that layer-specific synaptic plasticity mechanisms separately govern the persistence and generalization of CTA memory.
conditioned taste aversion, learning, memory, generalization, synaptic plasticity, gustatory cortex
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