Chronic stress can change how we learn and, thus, how we make decisions by promoting the formation of inflexible, potentially maladaptive, habits. Here we investigated the neuronal circuit mechanisms that enable this. Using a multifaceted approach in male and female mice, we reveal a dual pathway, amygdala-striatal, neuronal circuit architecture by which a recent history of chronic stress shapes learning to disrupt flexible goal-directed behavior in favor of inflexible habits. Chronic stress inhibits activity of basolateral amygdala projections to the dorsomedial striatum to impede the action-outcome learning that supports flexible, goal-directed decisions. Stress also increases activity in direct central amygdala projections to the dorsomedial striatum to promote the formation of rigid, inflexible habits. Thus, stress exerts opposing effects on two amygdala-striatal pathways to promote premature habit formation. These data provide neuronal circuit insights into how chronic stress shapes learning and decision making, and help understand how stress can lead to the disrupted decision making and pathological habits that characterize substance use disorders and other psychiatric conditions.
Keywords: basolateral amygdala; central amygdala; decision making; instrumental conditioning; learning; reward; striatum.