Response suppression by automatic retrieval of stimulus-stop association: evidence from transcranial magnetic stimulation

J Cogn Neurosci. 2012 Sep;24(9):1908-18. doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_00247. Epub 2012 May 25.


Behavioral studies show that subjects respond more slowly to stimuli to which they previously stopped. This response slowing could be explained by "automatic inhibition" (i.e., the reinstantiation of motor suppression when a stimulus retrieves a stop association). Here we tested this using TMS. In Experiment 1, participants were trained to go or no-go to stimuli. Then, in a test phase, we compared the corticospinal excitability for go stimuli that were previously associated with stopping (no-go_then_go) with go stimuli that were previously associated with going (go_then_go). Corticospinal excitability was reduced for no-go_then_go compared with go_then_go stimuli at a mere 100 msec poststimulus. Although these results fit with automatic inhibition, there was, surprisingly, no suppression for no-go_then_no-go stimuli, although this should occur. We speculated that automatic inhibition lies within a continuum between effortful top-down response inhibition and no inhibition at all. When the need for executive control and active response suppression disappears, so does the manifestation of automatic inhibition. Therefore, it should emerge during go/no-go learning and disappear as performance asymptotes. Consistent with this idea, in Experiment 2, we demonstrated reduced corticospinal excitability for no-go versus go trials most prominently in the midphase of training but it wears off as performance asymptotes. We thus provide neurophysiological evidence for an inhibition mechanism that is automatically reinstantiated when a stimulus retrieves a learned stopping episode, but only in an executive context in which active suppression is required. This demonstrates that automatic and top-down inhibition jointly contribute to goal-directed behavior.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Decision Making
  • Electromyography
  • Evoked Potentials, Motor / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Repression, Psychology*
  • Time Factors
  • Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation*
  • Verbal Learning
  • Vocabulary
  • Young Adult