Potentiation of the early visual response to learned danger signals in adults and adolescents

Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2015 Feb;10(2):269-77. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsu048. Epub 2014 Mar 19.


The reinforcing effects of aversive outcomes on avoidance behaviour are well established. However, their influence on perceptual processes is less well explored, especially during the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Using electroencephalography, we examined whether learning to actively or passively avoid harm can modulate early visual responses in adolescents and adults. The task included two avoidance conditions, active and passive, where two different warning stimuli predicted the imminent, but avoidable, presentation of an aversive tone. To avoid the aversive outcome, participants had to learn to emit an action (active avoidance) for one of the warning stimuli and omit an action for the other (passive avoidance). Both adults and adolescents performed the task with a high degree of accuracy. For both adolescents and adults, increased N170 event-related potential amplitudes were found for both the active and the passive warning stimuli compared with control conditions. Moreover, the potentiation of the N170 to the warning stimuli was stable and long lasting. Developmental differences were also observed; adolescents showed greater potentiation of the N170 component to danger signals. These findings demonstrate, for the first time, that learned danger signals in an instrumental avoidance task can influence early visual sensory processes in both adults and adolescents.

Keywords: N170 event-related potential; adolescence; avoidance behaviour; danger signals; learning-dependent plasticity.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aging / psychology
  • Arousal / physiology
  • Avoidance Learning / physiology
  • Child
  • Electroencephalography
  • Evoked Potentials / physiology
  • Fear / psychology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology
  • Prospective Studies
  • Visual Perception / physiology*
  • Young Adult