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Learning processes and the neural analysis of conditioning

Psychology & Neuroscience
American Psychological Association
  • Reinforcement
  • Dopamine
  • Neuronal Plasticity
  • Classical Conditioning
  • Behavior Analysis
  • Operant Conditioning


Classical and operant conditioning principles, such as the behavioral discrepancy-derived assumption that reinforcement always selects antecedent stimulus and response relations, have been studied at the neural level, mainly by observing the strengthening of neuronal responses or synaptic connections. A review of the literature on the neural basis of behavior provided extensive scientific data that indicate a synthesis between the two conditioning processes based mainly on stimulus control in learning tasks. The resulting analysis revealed the following aspects. Dopamine acts as a behavioral discrepancy signal in the midbrain pathway of positive reinforcement, leading toward the nucleus accumbens. Dopamine modulates both types of conditioning in the Aplysia mollusk and in mammals. In vivo and in vitro mollusk preparations show convergence of both types of conditioning in the same motor neuron. Frontal cortical neurons are involved in behavioral discrimination in reversal and extinction procedures, and these neurons preferentially deliver glutamate through conditioned stimulus or discriminative stimulus pathways. Discriminative neural responses can reliably precede operant movements and can also be common to stimuli that share complex symbolic relations. The present article discusses convergent and divergent points between conditioning paradigms at the neural level of analysis to advance our knowledge on reinforcement.

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