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PLoS Biol. 2006 Jul;4(8):e233.

Is avoiding an aversive outcome rewarding? Neural substrates of avoidance learning in the human brain.

Abstract

Avoidance learning poses a challenge for reinforcement-based theories of instrumental conditioning, because once an aversive outcome is successfully avoided an individual may no longer experience extrinsic reinforcement for their behavior. One possible account for this is to propose that avoiding an aversive outcome is in itself a reward, and thus avoidance behavior is positively reinforced on each trial when the aversive outcome is successfully avoided. In the present study we aimed to test this possibility by determining whether avoidance of an aversive outcome recruits the same neural circuitry as that elicited by a reward itself. We scanned 16 human participants with functional MRI while they performed an instrumental choice task, in which on each trial they chose from one of two actions in order to either win money or else avoid losing money. Neural activity in a region previously implicated in encoding stimulus reward value, the medial orbitofrontal cortex, was found to increase, not only following receipt of reward, but also following successful avoidance of an aversive outcome. This neural signal may itself act as an intrinsic reward, thereby serving to reinforce actions during instrumental avoidance.

Comment in

PMID:
16802856
[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
PMCID:
PMC1484497
Free PMC Article

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