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Reward and avoidance learning in the context of aversive environments and possible implications for depressive symptoms


Sebold, Miriam; Garbusow, M; Jetzschmann, P; Schad, D J; Nebe, Stephan; Schlagenhauf, F; Heinz, A; Rapp, M; Romanczuk-Seiferth, N (2019). Reward and avoidance learning in the context of aversive environments and possible implications for depressive symptoms. Psychopharmacology, 236(8):2437-2449.

Abstract

Background
Aversive stimuli in the environment influence human actions. This includes valence-dependent influences on action selection, e.g., increased avoidance but decreased approach behavior. However, it is yet unclear how aversive stimuli interact with complex learning and decision-making in the reward and avoidance domain. Moreover, the underlying computational mechanisms of these decision-making biases are unknown.
Methods
To elucidate these mechanisms, 54 healthy young male subjects performed a two-step sequential decision-making task, which allows to computationally model different aspects of learning, e.g., model-free, habitual, and model-based, goal-directed learning. We used a within-subject design, crossing task valence (reward vs. punishment learning) with emotional context (aversive vs. neutral background stimuli). We analyzed choice data, applied a computational model, and performed simulations.
Results
Whereas model-based learning was not affected, aversive stimuli interacted with model-free learning in a way that depended on task valence. Thus, aversive stimuli increased model-free avoidance learning but decreased model-free reward learning. The computational model confirmed this effect: the parameter lambda that indicates the influence of reward prediction errors on decision values was increased in the punishment condition but decreased in the reward condition when aversive stimuli were present. Further, by using the inferred computational parameters to simulate choice data, our effects were captured. Exploratory analyses revealed that the observed biases were associated with subclinical depressive symptoms.
Conclusion
Our data show that aversive environmental stimuli affect complex learning and decision-making, which depends on task valence. Further, we provide a model of the underlying computations of this affective modulation. Finally, our finding of increased decision-making biases in subjects reporting subclinical depressive symptoms matches recent reports of amplified Pavlovian influences on action selection in depression and suggests a potential vulnerability factor for mood disorders. We discuss our findings in the light of the involvement of the neuromodulators serotonin and dopamine.

Abstract

Background
Aversive stimuli in the environment influence human actions. This includes valence-dependent influences on action selection, e.g., increased avoidance but decreased approach behavior. However, it is yet unclear how aversive stimuli interact with complex learning and decision-making in the reward and avoidance domain. Moreover, the underlying computational mechanisms of these decision-making biases are unknown.
Methods
To elucidate these mechanisms, 54 healthy young male subjects performed a two-step sequential decision-making task, which allows to computationally model different aspects of learning, e.g., model-free, habitual, and model-based, goal-directed learning. We used a within-subject design, crossing task valence (reward vs. punishment learning) with emotional context (aversive vs. neutral background stimuli). We analyzed choice data, applied a computational model, and performed simulations.
Results
Whereas model-based learning was not affected, aversive stimuli interacted with model-free learning in a way that depended on task valence. Thus, aversive stimuli increased model-free avoidance learning but decreased model-free reward learning. The computational model confirmed this effect: the parameter lambda that indicates the influence of reward prediction errors on decision values was increased in the punishment condition but decreased in the reward condition when aversive stimuli were present. Further, by using the inferred computational parameters to simulate choice data, our effects were captured. Exploratory analyses revealed that the observed biases were associated with subclinical depressive symptoms.
Conclusion
Our data show that aversive environmental stimuli affect complex learning and decision-making, which depends on task valence. Further, we provide a model of the underlying computations of this affective modulation. Finally, our finding of increased decision-making biases in subjects reporting subclinical depressive symptoms matches recent reports of amplified Pavlovian influences on action selection in depression and suggests a potential vulnerability factor for mood disorders. We discuss our findings in the light of the involvement of the neuromodulators serotonin and dopamine.

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Additional indexing

Item Type:Journal Article, refereed, original work
Communities & Collections:03 Faculty of Economics > Department of Economics
Dewey Decimal Classification:330 Economics
Scopus Subject Areas:Life Sciences > Pharmacology
Uncontrolled Keywords:Reward learning, avoidance learning, reinforcement learning, computational psychiatry, decision-making, affective modulation, depression symptoms
Language:English
Date:1 August 2019
Deposited On:26 Jul 2019 14:35
Last Modified:29 Jul 2020 11:04
Publisher:Springer
ISSN:0033-3158
OA Status:Hybrid
Publisher DOI:https://doi.org/10.1007/s00213-019-05299-9

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