The propensity to sign-track is associated with externalizing behavior and distinct patterns of reward-related brain activation in youth

Sci Rep. 2023 Mar 16;13(1):4402. doi: 10.1038/s41598-023-30906-3.


Externalizing behaviors in childhood often predict impulse control disorders in adulthood; however, the underlying bio-behavioral risk factors are incompletely understood. In animals, the propensity to sign-track, or the degree to which incentive motivational value is attributed to reward cues, is associated with externalizing-type behaviors and deficits in executive control. Using a Pavlovian conditioned approach paradigm, we quantified sign-tracking in 40 healthy 9-12-year-olds. We also measured parent-reported externalizing behaviors and anticipatory neural activations to outcome-predicting cues using the monetary incentive delay fMRI task. Sign-tracking was associated with attentional and inhibitory control deficits and the degree of amygdala, but not cortical, activation during reward anticipation. These findings support the hypothesis that youth with a propensity to sign-track are prone to externalizing tendencies, with an over-reliance on subcortical cue-reactive brain systems. This research highlights sign-tracking as a promising experimental approach delineating the behavioral and neural circuitry of individuals at risk for externalizing disorders.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Amygdala / diagnostic imaging
  • Animals
  • Attention
  • Cues
  • Motivation*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Reward*