Individual differences in sensitivity to reward and punishment and neural activity during reward and avoidance learning

Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2015 Sep;10(9):1219-27. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsv007. Epub 2015 Feb 12.


In this functional neuroimaging study, we investigated neural activations during the process of learning to gain monetary rewards and to avoid monetary loss, and how these activations are modulated by individual differences in reward and punishment sensitivity. Healthy young volunteers performed a reinforcement learning task where they chose one of two fractal stimuli associated with monetary gain (reward trials) or avoidance of monetary loss (avoidance trials). Trait sensitivity to reward and punishment was assessed using the behavioral inhibition/activation scales (BIS/BAS). Functional neuroimaging results showed activation of the striatum during the anticipation and reception periods of reward trials. During avoidance trials, activation of the dorsal striatum and prefrontal regions was found. As expected, individual differences in reward sensitivity were positively associated with activation in the left and right ventral striatum during reward reception. Individual differences in sensitivity to punishment were negatively associated with activation in the left dorsal striatum during avoidance anticipation and also with activation in the right lateral orbitofrontal cortex during receiving monetary loss. These results suggest that learning to attain reward and learning to avoid loss are dependent on separable sets of neural regions whose activity is modulated by trait sensitivity to reward or punishment.

Keywords: avoidance; orbitofrontal; punishment sensitivity; reward; reward sensitivity; striatum.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Avoidance Learning / physiology*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Individuality*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Punishment*
  • Reward*
  • Young Adult