Neurobiological mechanisms underlying the blocking effect in aversive learning
Current theories of classical conditioning assume that learning depends on the predictive relationship between events, not just on their temporal contiguity. Here we employ the classic experiment substantiating this reasoning—the blocking paradigm—in combination with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate whether human amygdala responses in aversive learning conform to these assumptions. In accordance with blocking, we demonstrate that significantly stronger behavioral and amygdala responses are evoked by conditioned stimuli that are predictive of the unconditioned stimulus than by conditioned stimuli that have received the same pairing with the unconditioned stimulus, yet have no predictive value. When studying the development of this effect, we not only observed that it was related to the strength of previous conditioned responses, but also that predictive compared with nonpredictive conditioned stimuli received more overt attention, as measured by fMRI-concurrent eye tracking, and that this went along with enhanced amygdala responses. We furthermore observed that prefrontal regions play a role in the development of the blocking effect: ventromedial prefrontal cortex (subgenual anterior cingulate) only exhibited responses when conditioned stimuli had to be established as nonpredictive for an outcome, whereas dorsolateral prefrontal cortex also showed responses when conditioned stimuli had to be established as predictive. Most importantly, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex connectivity to amygdala flexibly switched between positive and negative coupling, depending on the requirements posed by predictive relationships. Together, our findings highlight the role of predictive value in explaining amygdala responses and identify mechanisms that shape these responses in human fear conditioning.