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On the role of subsecond dopamine release in conditioned avoidance

Frontiers in Neuroscience
Frontiers Media SA
Publication Date
DOI: 10.3389/fnins.2013.00096
  • Neuroscience
  • Review Article
  • Psychology


Using shock avoidance procedures to study conditioned behavioral responses has a rich history within the field of experimental psychology. Such experiments led to the formulation of the general concept of negative reinforcement and specific theories attempting to explain escape and avoidance behavior, or why animals choose to either terminate or prevent the presentation of an aversive event. For example, the two-factor theory of avoidance holds that cues preceding an aversive event begin to evoke conditioned fear responses, and these conditioned fear responses reinforce the instrumental avoidance response. Current neuroscientific advances are providing new perspectives into this historical literature. Due to its well-established role in reinforcement processes and behavioral control, the mesolimbic dopamine system presented itself as a logical starting point in the search for neural correlates of avoidance and escape behavior. We recently demonstrated that phasic dopamine release events are inhibited by stimuli associated with aversive events but increased by stimuli preceding the successful avoidance of the aversive event. The latter observation is inconsistent with the second component of the two-factor theory of avoidance and; therefore, led us propose a new theoretical explanation of conditioned avoidance: (1) fear is initially conditioned to the warning signal and dopamine computes this fear association as a decrease in release, (2) the warning signal, now capable of producing a negative emotional state, suppresses dopamine release and behavior, (3) over repeated trials the warning signal becomes associated with safety rather than fear; dopaminergic neurons already compute safety as an increase in release and begin to encode the warning signal as the earliest predictor of safety (4) the warning signal now promotes conditioned avoidance via dopaminergic modulation of the brain's incentive-motivational circuitry.

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