One of the primary achievements of affective neuroscience is the development of detailed animal models of affective learning and extinction that have been confirmed and extended in investigations with humans (Schultz, 2006;Phelps &LeDoux, 2005). The neural systems identified in these animal models have been implicated in the development of psychological disorders, such as anxiety disorders (Rauch, 2003). However in human experience, social interaction and affective learning are inherently intertwined, and there are a number of ways in which these animal models fail to reflect everyday human function in a social and cultural context. First, the nature of the UCS often differs. Typical reinforcers in human experience are often socially defined, such as money or praise. Second, how stimuli are linked to reinforcers does not always depend on emotional experience. Social means of affective learning can effectively convey the emotional qualities of a stimulus, without directly experiencing an emotional event. Third, diminishing a learned emotional response to a stimulus does not always require that the stimulus is repeatedly exposed. Instead, strategies for changing the emotional value of a stimulus can be conveyed through social interaction. The proposed studies will assess how, or if, animal models of affective learning can be extended to human experience in a social environment.
Specific Aim 1 : Using simple affective learning paradigms modeled on classical conditioning, we will explore the neural mechanisms of social means of affective learning. Previous research on the acquisition of affective responses has highlighted the importance of the amygdala and striatum. We will examine if the social acquisition of affective responses recruits similar neural mechanisms.
Specific Aim 2 : We will build on models of extinction learning in classical conditioning to explore if a socially conveyed emotion regulation strategies for controlling learned affective responses depend on overlapping neural mechanisms. Specifically, we will assess the interaction of the lateral and ventral medial prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and striatum.
Specific Aim 3 : We will explore the overlap in the neural mechanisms underlying the regulation of learned affective responses across a range of social, emotion regulation strategies. Emotional responses can be regulated by a number of social means, such as social support from a friend or training in a therapeutic context. We will explore if these different techniques utilize a similar neural circuitry. The goal of this proposal is to understand how the brain learns emotional responses in a social environment and how they can be controlled and modified using a range of techniques. The ability to control our emotional reactions is critical in everyday adaptive function and the treatment of a range of psychological disorders, such as anxiety disorders.
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