Individual differences in blink rate modulate the effect of instrumental control on subsequent Pavlovian responding

Catherine A. Hartley, Cesar A.O. Coelho, Emily Boeke, Franchesca Ramirez, Elizabeth A. Phelps

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Rationale: Pavlovian conditioned responses to cues that signal threat are rapidly acquired and tend to persist over time. However, recent research suggests that the ability to actively avoid or exert control over an anticipated threat can diminish the subsequent expression of Pavlovian responses. Studies in animal models suggest that active avoidance behavior and its consequences may be mediated by dopaminergic function. In the present study, we sought to replicate the finding that active control over threat can attenuate subsequent Pavlovian responding in humans and conducted exploratory analyses testing whether individual differences in blink rate, a putative index of dopaminergic function, might modulate this effect. Methods: Participants underwent Pavlovian aversive conditioning, followed immediately by one of two conditions. In the active avoidance condition, participants had the opportunity to actively prevent the occurrence of an anticipated shock, whereas in a yoked extinction condition, participants passively observed the cessation of shocks, but with no ability to influence their occurrence. The following day, the conditioned stimuli were presented without shock, but both groups of participants had no opportunity to employ active instrumental responses. Blink rate was measured throughout the task, and skin conductance responses served as our index of Pavlovian conditioned responding. Results: Consistent with our previous findings, we observed that the group that could actively avoid the shock on day 1 exhibited attenuated recovery of Pavlovian conditioned responses. Further, we found that individuals in the active avoidance group with higher blink rates exhibited a more robust attenuation of spontaneous recovery. Conclusion: This finding suggests that individual variation in dopaminergic function may modulate the efficacy with which active avoidance strategies can attenuate reactive Pavlovian responses.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)87-97
Number of pages11
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2019


  • Active avoidance
  • Conditioned responses
  • Dopamine
  • Pavlovian learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pharmacology


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