The lateral habenula (LHb) is an epithalamic brain structure that provides strong projections to midbrain monoaminergic systems that are involved in motivation, emotion, and reinforcement learning. LHb neurons are known to convey information about aversive outcomes and negative prediction errors, suggesting a role in learning from aversive events. To test this idea, we examined the effects of electrolytic lesions of the LHb on signaled two-way active avoidance learning in which rats were trained to avoid an unconditioned stimulus (US) by taking a proactive shuttling response to an auditory conditioned stimulus (CS). The lesioned animals learned the avoidance response significantly faster than the control groups. In a separate experiment, we also investigated whether the LHb contributes to Pavlovian threat (fear) conditioning and extinction. Following paired presentations of the CS and the US, LHb-lesioned animals showed normal acquisition of conditioned response (CR) measured with freezing. However, extinction of the CR in the subsequent CS-only session was significantly faster. The enhanced performance in avoidance learning and in threat extinction jointly suggests that the LHb normally plays an inhibitory role in learning driven by absence of aversive outcomes.
Keywords: Extinction; Fear conditioning; Lateral habenula; Rat; Reinforcement learning; Two-way active avoidance.
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