Active Avoidance: Neural Mechanisms and Attenuation of Pavlovian Conditioned Responding.J Neurosci. 2017 05 03; 37(18):4808-4818.JN
Patients with anxiety disorders often experience a relapse in symptoms after exposure therapy. Similarly, threat responses acquired during Pavlovian threat conditioning often return after extinction learning. Accordingly, there is a need for alternative methods to persistently reduce threat responding. Studies in rodents have suggested that exercising behavioral control over an aversive stimulus can persistently diminish threat responses, and that these effects are mediated by the amygdala, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and striatum. In this fMRI study, we attempted to translate these findings to humans. Subjects first underwent threat conditioning. We then contrasted two forms of safety learning: active avoidance, in which participants could prevent the shock through an action, and yoked extinction, with shock presentation matched to the active condition, but without instrumental control. The following day, we assessed subjects' threat responses (measured by skin conductance) to the conditioned stimuli without shock. Subjects next underwent threat conditioning with novel stimuli. Yoked extinction subjects showed an increase in conditioned response to stimuli from the previous day, but the active avoidance group did not. Additionally, active avoidance subjects showed reduced conditioned responding during novel threat conditioning, but the extinction group did not. We observed between-group differences in striatal BOLD responses to shock omission in Avoidance/Extinction. These findings suggest a differential role for the striatum in human active avoidance versus extinction learning, and indicate that active avoidance may be more effective than extinction in persistently diminishing threat responses.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Extinguished threat responses often reemerge with time, highlighting the importance of identifying more enduring means of attenuation. We compared the effects of active avoidance learning and yoked extinction on threat responses in humans and contrasted the neural circuitry engaged by these two processes. Subjects who learned to prevent a shock through an action maintained low threat responses after safety learning and showed attenuated threat conditioning with novel stimuli, in contrast to those who underwent yoked extinction. The results suggest that experiences of active control over threat engage the striatum and promote a shift from expression of innate defensive responses toward more adaptive behavioral responses to threatening stimuli.