The tipping point: Value differences and parallel dorsal-ventral frontal circuits gating human approach-avoidance behavior

Neuroimage. 2016 Aug 1:136:94-105. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2016.04.070. Epub 2016 May 3.


Excessive avoidance and diminished approach behavior are both prominent features of anxiety, trauma and stress related disorders. Despite this, little is known about the neuronal mechanisms supporting gating of human approach-avoidance behavior. Here, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to track dorsal anterior cingulate and medial prefrontal (dACC/dmPFC) activation along an approach-avoidance continuum to assess sensitivity to competing appetitive and aversive contingencies and correspondence with behavior change. Behavioral and fMRI experiments were conducted using a novel approach-avoidance task where a monetary reward appeared in the presence of a conditioned stimulus (CS), or threat, that signaled increasing probability of unconditioned stimulus (US) delivery. Approach produced the reward or probabilistic US, while avoidance prevented US delivery, and across trials, reward remained fixed while the CS threat level varied unpredictably. Increasing the CS threat level (i.e., US probability) produced the desired approach-avoidance transition and inverted U-shaped changes in decision times, electrodermal activity and activation in pregenual ACC, dACC/dmPFC, striatum, anterior insula and inferior frontal regions. Conversely, U-shaped changes in activation were observed in dorsolateral and ventromedial prefrontal cortex and bimodal changes in the orbitofrontal and ventral hippocampus. These new results show parallel dorsal-ventral frontal circuits support gating of human approach-avoidance behavior where dACC/dmPFC signals inversely correlate with value differences between approach and avoidance contingencies while ventral frontal signals correlate with the value of predictable outcomes. Our findings provide an important bridge between basic research on brain mechanisms of value-guided decision-making and value-focused clinical theories of anxiety and related interventions.

Keywords: Anterior cingulate; Anxiety; Approach–avoidance; Conflict; Decision making; Threat.

MeSH terms

  • Attention / physiology*
  • Avoidance Learning / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping / methods
  • Choice Behavior / physiology*
  • Conditioning, Classical
  • Female
  • Frontal Lobe / physiology*
  • Gyrus Cinguli / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Male
  • Nerve Net / physiology*
  • Reward
  • Young Adult