Using signals associated with safety in avoidance learning: computational model of sex differences

PeerJ. 2015 Jul 14;3:e1081. doi: 10.7717/peerj.1081. eCollection 2015.


Avoidance behavior involves learning responses that prevent upcoming aversive events; these responses typically extinguish when the aversive events stop materializing. Stimuli that signal safety from aversive events can paradoxically inhibit extinction of avoidance behavior. In animals, males and females process safety signals differently. These differences help explain why women are more likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and exhibit differences in symptom presentation and course compared to men. In the current study, we extend an existing model of strain differences in avoidance behavior to simulate sex differences in rats. The model successfully replicates data showing that the omission of a signal associated with a period of safety can facilitate extinction in females, but not males, and makes novel predictions that this effect should depend on the duration of the period, the duration of the signal itself, and its occurrence within that period. Non-reinforced responses during the safe period were also found to be important in the expression of these patterns. The model also allowed us to explore underlying mechanisms for the observed sex effects, such as whether safety signals serve as occasion setters for aversive events, to determine why removing them can facilitate extinction of avoidance. The simulation results argue against this account, and instead suggest the signal may serve as a conditioned reinforcer of avoidance behavior.

Keywords: Anxiety disorders; Anxiety vulnerability; Associative learning; Avoidance; Computational model; Safety signal; Sex differences.