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 drug abuse, smoking, and overeating?in which voluntary contact with reinforcers plays an essential role. The experiments will involve rats as subjects. One set will test evidence that the rat learns to actively inhibit its behavior during extinction, and will evaluate an account of how that inhibition is learned. Another set will distinguish between goal-directed actions and automatic habits, and will ask how sensitive they are to extinction, relapse, and other types of behavior change. A third set will analyze learning and extinction of sequences or ?chains? of behavior in which the individual must purchase (or procure) access to the reinforcer before he or she can consume (or ?take?) it. A fourth set of experiments will test new hypotheses about relapse and the prevention of relapse when rats learn to inhibit a response they perform in order to receive intravenous cocaine delivery. 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 drug abuse, smoking, 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 behavior. The findings will help develop new conceptual tools and methods to promote extinction learning and reduce the possibility of lapse and relapse.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)
Research Project (R01)
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Study Section
Biobehavioral Regulation, Learning and Ethology Study Section (BRLE)
Program Officer
Moore, Holly Marie
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University of Vermont & St Agric College
Schools of Arts and Sciences
United States
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Thrailkill, Eric A; Trask, Sydney; Vidal, Pedro et al. (2018) Stimulus control of actions and habits: A role for reinforcer predictability and attention in the development of habitual behavior. J Exp Psychol Anim Learn Cogn 44:370-384
Thrailkill, Eric A; Porritt, Fay; Kacelnik, Alex et al. (2018) Maintaining performance in searching dogs: Evidence from a rat model that training to detect a second (irrelevant) stimulus can maintain search and detection responding. Behav Processes 157:161-170
Trask, Sydney (2018) Cues Associated with Alternative Reinforcement During Extinction Can Attenuate Resurgence of an Extinguished Instrumental Response. Learn Behav :
Trask, Sydney; Bouton, Mark E (2018) Retrieval practice after multiple context changes, but not long retention intervals, reduces the impact of a final context change on instrumental behavior. Learn Behav 46:213-221
Shipman, Megan L; Trask, Sydney; Bouton, Mark E et al. (2018) Inactivation of prelimbic and infralimbic cortex respectively affects minimally-trained and extensively-trained goal-directed actions. Neurobiol Learn Mem 155:164-172
Miles, Olivia W; Thrailkill, Eric A; Linden, Anne K et al. (2018) Pituitary Adenylate Cyclase-Activating Peptide in the Bed Nucleus of the Stria Terminalis Mediates Stress-Induced Reinstatement of Cocaine Seeking in Rats. Neuropsychopharmacology 43:978-986
Bouton, Mark E (2018) Extinction of instrumental (operant) learning: interference, varieties of context, and mechanisms of contextual control. Psychopharmacology (Berl) :
Podlesnik, Christopher A; Kelley, Michael E; Jimenez-Gomez, Corina et al. (2017) Renewed behavior produced by context change and its implications for treatment maintenance: A review. J Appl Behav Anal 50:675-697
Trask, Sydney; Thrailkill, Eric A; Bouton, Mark E (2017) Occasion setting, inhibition, and the contextual control of extinction in Pavlovian and instrumental (operant) learning. Behav Processes 137:64-72
Thrailkill, Eric A; Bouton, Mark E (2017) Effects of outcome devaluation on instrumental behaviors in a discriminated heterogeneous chain. J Exp Psychol Anim Learn Cogn 43:88-95

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