Active avoidance: Neural mechanisms and attenuation of pavlovian conditioned responding

Emily A. Boeke, Justin M. Moscarello, Joseph E. LeDoux, Elizabeth A. Phelps, Catherine A. Hartley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Patients with anxiety disorders often experience a relapse in symptoms after exposure therapy. Similarly, threat responses acquired during Pavlovian threat conditioning often return after extinction learning. Accordingly, there is a need for alternative methods to persistently reduce threat responding. Studies in rodents have suggested that exercising behavioral control over an aversive stimulus can persistently diminish threat responses, and that these effects are mediated by the amygdala, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and striatum. In this fMRI study, we attempted to translate these findings to humans. Subjects first underwent threat conditioning. We then contrasted two forms of safety learning: active avoidance, in which participants could prevent the shock through an action, and yoked extinction, with shock presentation matched to the active condition, but without instrumental control. The following day, we assessed subjects’ threat responses (measured by skin conductance) to the conditioned stimuli without shock. Subjects next underwent threat conditioning with novel stimuli. Yoked extinction subjects showed an increase in conditioned response to stimuli from the previous day, but the active avoidance group did not. Additionally, active avoidance subjects showed reduced conditioned responding during novel threat conditioning, but the extinction group did not. We observed between-group differences in striatal BOLD responses to shock omission in Avoidance/Extinction. These findings suggest a differential role for the striatum in human active avoidance versus extinction learning, and indicate that active avoidance may be more effective than extinction in persistently diminishing threat responses.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4808-4818
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number18
StatePublished - May 3 2017


  • Active avoidance
  • Anxiety
  • Coping
  • Instrumental learning
  • Resilience
  • Threat conditioning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience


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