Asymmetric representation of aversive prediction errors in Pavlovian threat conditioning

Neuroimage. 2022 Aug 20;263:119579. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2022.119579. Online ahead of print.


Survival in biological environments requires learning associations between predictive sensory cues and threatening outcomes. Such aversive learning may be implemented through reinforcement learning algorithms that are driven by the signed difference between expected and encountered outcomes, termed prediction errors (PEs). While PE-based learning is well established for reward learning, the role of putative PE signals in aversive learning is less clear. Here, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging in humans (21 healthy men and women) to investigate the neural representation of PEs during maintenance of learned aversive associations. Four visual cues, each with a different probability (0, 33, 66, 100%) of being followed by an aversive outcome (electric shock), were repeatedly presented to participants. We found that neural activity at omission (US-) but not occurrence of the aversive outcome (US+) encoded PEs in the medial prefrontal cortex. More expected omission of aversive outcome was associated with lower neural activity. No neural signals fulfilled axiomatic criteria, which specify necessary and sufficient components of PE signals, for signed PE representation in a whole-brain search or in a-priori regions of interest. Our results might suggest that, different from reward learning, aversive learning does not involve signed PE signals that are represented within the same brain region for all conditions.

Keywords: Aversive prediction errors; Axiomatic conditions; Reinforcement learning; Threat learning; fMRI.