The contribution of the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) to the formation of memory is a subject of considerable recent interest. Notably, the mechanisms supporting memory acquisition in this structure are poorly understood. The mPFC has been implicated in the acquisition of trace fear conditioning, a task that requires the association of a conditional stimulus (CS) and an aversive unconditional stimulus (UCS) across a temporal gap. In both rat and human subjects, frontal regions show increased activity during the trace interval separating the CS and UCS. We investigated the contribution of prefrontal neural activity in the rat to the acquisition of trace fear conditioning using microinfusions of the gamma-aminobutyric acid type A (GABA(A)) receptor agonist muscimol. We also investigated the role of prefrontal N-methyl-d-aspartate (NMDA) receptor-mediated signaling in trace fear conditioning using the NMDA receptor antagonist 2-amino-5-phosphonovaleric acid (APV). Temporary inactivation of prefrontal activity with muscimol or blockade of NMDA receptor-dependent transmission in mPFC impaired the acquisition of trace, but not delay, conditional fear responses. Simultaneously acquired contextual fear responses were also impaired in drug-treated rats exposed to trace or delay, but not unpaired, training protocols. Our results support the idea that synaptic plasticity within the mPFC is critical for the long-term storage of memory in trace fear conditioning.
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