Stress attenuates the flexible updating of aversive value

Candace M. Raio, Catherine A. Hartley, Temidayo A. Orederu, Jian Li, Elizabeth A. Phelps

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In a dynamic environment, sources of threat or safety can unexpectedly change, requiring the flexible updating of stimulus−outcome associations that promote adaptive behavior. However, aversive contexts in which we are required to update predictions of threat are often marked by stress. Acute stress is thought to reduce behavioral flexibility, yet its influence on the modulation of aversive value has not been well characterized. Given that stress exposure is a prominent risk factor for anxiety and trauma-related disorders marked by persistent, inflexible responses to threat, here we examined how acute stress affects the flexible updating of threat responses. Participants completed an aversive learning task, in which one stimulus was probabilistically associated with an electric shock, while the other stimulus signaled safety. A day later, participants underwent an acute stress or control manipulation before completing a reversal learning task during which the original stimulus−outcome contingencies switched. Skin conductance and neuroendocrine responses provided indices of sympathetic arousal and stress responses, respectively. Despite equivalent initial learning, stressed participants showed marked impairments in reversal learning relative to controls. Additionally, reversal learning deficits across participants were related to heightened levels of alpha-amylase, a marker of noradrenergic activity. Finally, fitting arousal data to a computational reinforcement learning model revealed that stress-induced reversal learning deficits emerged from stress-specific changes in the weight assigned to prediction error signals, disrupting the adaptive adjustment of learning rates. Our findings provide insight into how stress renders individuals less sensitive to changes in aversive reinforcement and have implications for understanding clinical conditions marked by stress-related psychopathology.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)11241-11246
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number42
StatePublished - Oct 17 2017


  • Cognitive flexibility
  • Computational modeling
  • Reversal learning
  • Stress
  • Threat

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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