Behavioral and neurobiological mechanisms of punishment: implications for psychiatric disorders

Neuropsychopharmacology. 2018 Jul;43(8):1639-1650. doi: 10.1038/s41386-018-0047-3. Epub 2018 Mar 27.


Punishment involves learning about the relationship between behavior and its adverse consequences. Punishment is fundamental to reinforcement learning, decision-making and choice, and is disrupted in psychiatric disorders such as addiction, depression, and psychopathy. However, little is known about the brain mechanisms of punishment and much of what is known is derived from study of superficially similar, but fundamentally distinct, forms of aversive learning such as fear conditioning and avoidance learning. Here we outline the unique conditions that support punishment, the contents of its learning, and its behavioral consequences. We consider evidence implicating GABA and monoamine neurotransmitter systems, as well as corticostriatal, amygdala, and dopamine circuits in punishment. We show how maladaptive punishment processes are implicated in addictions, impulse control disorders, psychopathy, anxiety, and depression and argue that a better understanding of the cellular, circuit, and cognitive mechanisms of punishment will make important contributions to next generation therapeutic approaches.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Avoidance Learning / physiology
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Mental Disorders / physiopathology
  • Mental Disorders / psychology
  • Punishment* / psychology