Dissociable neural signatures of passive extinction and instrumental control over threatening events.Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2020 07 30; 15(6):625-634.SC
Aberrant fear learning processes are assumed to be a key factor in the pathogenesis of anxiety disorders. Thus, effective behavioral interventions to reduce dysfunctional fear responding are needed. Beyond passive extinction learning, instrumental control over threatening events is thought to diminish fear. However, the neural mechanisms underlying instrumental control-and to what extent these differ from extinction-are not well understood. We therefore contrasted the neural signatures of instrumental control and passive extinction using an aversive learning task, relative to a control condition. Participants (n = 64) could either learn to exert instrumental control over electric shocks, received a yoked number and sequence of shocks without instrumental control or did not receive any shocks. While both passive extinction and instrumental control reduced threat-related skin conductance responses (SCRs) relative to pre-extinction/control, instrumental control resulted in a significantly more pronounced decrease of SCRs. Instrumental control was further linked to decreased striatal activation and increased cross talk of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) with the amygdala, whereas passive extinction was associated with increased vmPFC activation. Our findings demonstrate that instrumental learning processes may shape Pavlovian fear responses and that the neural underpinnings of instrumental control are critically distinct from those of passive extinction learning.