Perceiving Threat In the Face of Safety: Excitation and Inhibition of Conditioned Fear in Human Visual Cortex
Previous findings have established that cortical sensory systems exhibit experience-dependent biases toward stimuli consistently associated with threat. It remains unclear whether safety cues also facilitate perceptual engagement or how competition between learned threat and safety cues is resolved within visual cortex. Here, we used classical discrimination conditioning with simple luminance modulated visual stimuli that predicted the presence or absence of an aversive sound to examine visuocortical competition between features signaling threat versus safety. We tracked steady-state visual evoked potentials to label distinct visual cortical responses in humans to conditioned and control stimuli. Trial-by-trial expectancy ratings collected online confirmed that participants discriminated between threat and safety cues. Conditioning was associated with heightened activation of the extended visual cortex in response to the threat, but not the safety, stimulus. Cortical facilitation for the threatening stimulus was selective and not decreased by simultaneously presenting safe and associatively novel cues. Our findings shed light on the sensory brain dynamics associated with experience-dependent acquisition of perceptual biases for danger and safety signals.