This project is concerned with understanding extinction, the loss of learned performance that occurs when a Pavlovian signal or an instrumental action is repeatedly presented without its reinforcer. Extinction is a naturally-occurring process of behavior change, as well as a tool used in clinical treatments designed to eliminate unwanted thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in humans. Although it is tempting to assume that extinction erases the original learning, extinguished performance readily recovers, and several recovery effects (e.g., renewal, reinstatement, rapid reacquisition, spontaneous recovery, and resurgence) indicate that the original learning may be largely intact. In addition, because these effects can be interpreted as effects of changing the background or "context," they suggest that extinction results from new inhibitory learning that is especially sensitive to the context in which it is learned. The goal of this project is to seek an integrated understanding of extinction as it is revealed in these and other response-recovery processes. It will focus especially on the extinction of instrumental (operant) learning, because principles of operant learning are crucial for understanding a range of behavior problems-such as smoking, drug abuse, and eating and overeating-in which voluntary contact with reinforces plays an essential role. The experiments will involve rats as subjects. One set will test new methods for reducing the "renewal effect" (in which extinguished behavior relapses when the context is changed after extinction) and "resurgence" (in which a behavior has been extinguished and replaced by a second behavior relapses when the replacement behavior is itself extinguished). Another set will examine ways to inhibit "rapid reacquisition" (in which an extinguished action rapidly spirals into relapse when action-reinforcer pairings are reintroduced) and test the effects of hunger as a contextual stimulus influencing relapse. A third set will analyze the extinction-enhancing effects of administering D-cycloserine (a partial agonist of a brain receptor that is thought to play a role in learning), as well as new hypotheses about how to enhance the generalization of extinction to new contexts. A fourth set will analyze the extinction of sequences or "chains" of behavior in which the subject must purchase (or procure) access to the reinforcer before she can consume (or "take") it. The results will increase our understanding of extinction, a fundamental behavioral and clinical phenomenon, and develop new ways to help promote extinction learning so as to minimize lapse and relapse.

Public Health Relevance

Instrumental learning is the source of many unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking, drug abuse, and overeating. The proposed research will study the elimination of instrumental behavior through extinction, a form of learning in which humans and other organisms learn to inhibit their actions. The findings will help develop new conceptual tools and methods to promote the durability of extinction learning, and thus reduce the possibility of lapse and relapse.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)
Research Project (R01)
Project #
Application #
Study Section
Special Emphasis Panel (ZRG1-BBBP-V (02))
Program Officer
Schnur, Paul
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
University of Vermont & St Agric College
Schools of Arts and Sciences
United States
Zip Code
Thrailkill, Eric A; Epstein, Leonard H; Bouton, Mark E (2015) Effects of inter-food interval on the variety effect in an instrumental food-seeking task. Clarifying the role of habituation. Appetite 84:43-53
Bouton, Mark E; Todd, Travis P (2014) A fundamental role for context in instrumental learning and extinction. Behav Processes 104:13-9
Bouton, Mark E; Schepers, Scott T (2014) Resurgence of instrumental behavior after an abstinence contingency. Learn Behav 42:131-43
Todd, Travis P; Vurbic, Drina; Bouton, Mark E (2014) Behavioral and neurobiological mechanisms of extinction in Pavlovian and instrumental learning. Neurobiol Learn Mem 108:52-64
Bouton, Mark E; Woods, Amanda M; Todd, Travis P (2014) Separation of time-based and trial-based accounts of the partial reinforcement extinction effect. Behav Processes 101:23-31
Trask, Sydney; Bouton, Mark E (2014) Contextual control of operant behavior: evidence for hierarchical associations in instrumental learning. Learn Behav 42:281-8
Bouton, Mark E (2014) Why behavior change is difficult to sustain. Prev Med 68:29-36
Todd, Travis P; Vurbic, Drina; Bouton, Mark E (2014) Mechanisms of renewal after the extinction of discriminated operant behavior. J Exp Psychol Anim Learn Cogn 40:355-68
Todd, Travis P (2013) Mechanisms of renewal after the extinction of instrumental behavior. J Exp Psychol Anim Behav Process 39:193-207
Rosas, Juan M; Todd, Travis P; Bouton, Mark E (2013) Context Change and Associative Learning. Wiley Interdiscip Rev Cogn Sci 4:237-244

Showing the most recent 10 out of 11 publications