Adaptation in human visual cortex as a mechanism for rapid discrimination of aversive stimuli

Neuroimage. 2007 Jun;36(2):472-9. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2007.02.048. Epub 2007 Mar 20.


The ability to react rapidly and efficiently to adverse stimuli is crucial for survival. Neuroscience and behavioral studies have converged to show that visual information associated with aversive content is processed quickly and accurately and is associated with rapid amplification of the neural responses. In particular, unpleasant visual information has repeatedly been shown to evoke increased cortical activity during early visual processing between 60 and 120 ms following the onset of a stimulus. However, the nature of these early responses is not well understood. Using neutral versus unpleasant colored pictures, the current report examines the time course of short-term changes in the human visual cortex when a subject is repeatedly exposed to simple grating stimuli in a classical conditioning paradigm. We analyzed changes in amplitude and synchrony of large-scale oscillatory activity across 2 days of testing, which included baseline measurements, 2 conditioning sessions, and a final extinction session. We found a gradual increase in amplitude and synchrony of very early cortical oscillations in the 20-35 Hz range across conditioning sessions, specifically for conditioned stimuli predicting aversive visual events. This increase for conditioned stimuli affected stimulus-locked cortical oscillations at a latency of around 60-90 ms and disappeared during extinction. Our findings suggest that reorganization of neural connectivity on the level of the visual cortex acts to optimize early perception of specific features indicative of emotional relevance.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology
  • Adult
  • Avoidance Learning / physiology*
  • Discrimination Learning / physiology*
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Evoked Potentials, Visual / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Visual Cortex / physiology*
  • Visual Perception / physiology*