Neural, electrodermal and behavioral response patterns in contingency aware and unaware subjects during a picture-picture conditioning paradigm.Neuroscience. 2009 Jan 23; 158(2):721-31.N
One way of investigating affective learning is the use of aversive pictures as unconditioned stimuli (UCS) in conditioning paradigms. In the last decades, there has been a heated debate on the influence of contingency awareness on conditioned responses (CRs). Only a few studies found CRs in contingency unaware subjects whereas other studies only reported conditioned reactions in contingency aware participants. However, as a shortcoming, most studies employing picture-picture paradigms only investigated one response level (e.g. changes in subjective ratings). Further, changes in brain activity have so far been neglected in this field of research. The aim of the present study was to investigate different response levels with respect to contingency awareness: brain activity measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), skin conductance responses (SCRs) and valence ratings. A neutral geometric shape (conditioned stimulus, CS+) was followed by aversive pictures, whereas another shape (CS-) preceded neutral pictures. Unaware participants showed CRs in brain activity (e.g. the insula). Generally more activity was observed in the fear network (e.g. the amygdala, the lateral orbitofrontal cortex) in aware participants and in the nucleus accumbens (NAcc). Investigation of SCRs and valence ratings revealed that only aware participants showed conditioned reactions. Our results point toward dissociations between response levels (e.g. brain activity) not affected by contingency awareness and more cognitive response levels (e.g. subjective ratings and SCRs) which are affected by contingency awareness. As a unique finding in human aversive conditioning, we discuss the role of the nucleus accumbens as well as practical implications for affective learning models.