Neural substrates of approach-avoidance conflict decision-making

Hum Brain Mapp. 2015 Feb;36(2):449-62. doi: 10.1002/hbm.22639. Epub 2014 Sep 15.


Animal approach-avoidance conflict paradigms have been used extensively to operationalize anxiety, quantify the effects of anxiolytic agents, and probe the neural basis of fear and anxiety. Results from human neuroimaging studies support that a frontal-striatal-amygdala neural circuitry is important for approach-avoidance learning. However, the neural basis of decision-making is much less clear in this context. Thus, we combined a recently developed human approach-avoidance paradigm with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to identify neural substrates underlying approach-avoidance conflict decision-making. Fifteen healthy adults completed the approach-avoidance conflict (AAC) paradigm during fMRI. Analyses of variance were used to compare conflict to nonconflict (avoid-threat and approach-reward) conditions and to compare level of reward points offered during the decision phase. Trial-by-trial amplitude modulation analyses were used to delineate brain areas underlying decision-making in the context of approach/avoidance behavior. Conflict trials as compared to the nonconflict trials elicited greater activation within bilateral anterior cingulate cortex, anterior insula, and caudate, as well as right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (PFC). Right caudate and lateral PFC activation was modulated by level of reward offered. Individuals who showed greater caudate activation exhibited less approach behavior. On a trial-by-trial basis, greater right lateral PFC activation related to less approach behavior. Taken together, results suggest that the degree of activation within prefrontal-striatal-insula circuitry determines the degree of approach versus avoidance decision-making. Moreover, the degree of caudate and lateral PFC activation related to individual differences in approach-avoidance decision-making. Therefore, the approach-avoidance conflict paradigm is ideally suited to probe anxiety-related processing differences during approach-avoidance decision-making.

Keywords: anterior cingulate cortex; caudate; emotion; insula; prefrontal cortex; punishment; reward; striatum.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Cerebrovascular Circulation / physiology
  • Conflict, Psychological
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Reward
  • Self Report
  • Signal Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Young Adult


  • Oxygen