Mammalian studies show that frustration is experienced when goal-directed activity is blocked. Despite frustration's strongly negative role in health, aggression and social relationships, the neural mechanisms are not well understood. To address this we developed a task in which participants were blocked from obtaining a reward, an established method of producing frustration. Levels of experienced frustration were parametrically varied by manipulating the participants' motivation to obtain the reward prior to blocking. This was achieved by varying the participants' proximity to a reward and the amount of effort expended in attempting to acquire it. In experiment 1, we confirmed that proximity and expended effort independently enhanced participants' self-reported desire to obtain the reward, and their self-reported frustration and response vigor (key-press force) following blocking. In experiment 2, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to show that both proximity and expended effort modulated brain responses to blocked reward in regions implicated in animal models of reactive aggression, including the amygdala, midbrain periaqueductal grey (PAG), insula and prefrontal cortex. Our findings suggest that frustration may serve an energizing function, translating unfulfilled motivation into aggressive-like surges via a cortical, amygdala and PAG network.
Keywords: Amygdala; Frustration; Periaqueductal grey; Reactive aggression.
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