Striatal structure and function predict individual biases in learning to avoid pain

Eran Eldar*, Tobias U. Hauser, Peter Dayan, Raymond J. Dolan

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

49 Scopus citations


Pain is an elemental inducer of avoidance. Here, we demonstrate that people differ in how they learn to avoid pain, with some individuals refraining from actions that resulted in painful outcomes, whereas others favor actions that helped prevent pain. These individual biases were best explained by differences in learning from outcome prediction errors and were associated with distinct forms of striatal responses to painful outcomes. Specifically, striatal responses to pain were modulated in a manner consistent with an aversive prediction error in individuals who learned predominantly from pain, whereas in individuals who learned predominantly from success in preventing pain, modulation was consistent with an appetitive prediction error. In contrast, striatal responses to success in preventing pain were consistent with an appetitive prediction error in both groups. Furthermore, variation in striatal structure, encompassing the region where pain prediction errors were expressed, predicted participants predominant mode of learning, suggesting the observed learning biases may reflect stable individual traits. These results reveal functional and structural neural components underlying individual differences in avoidance learning, which may be important contributors to psychiatric disorders involving pathological harm avoidance behavior.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)4812-4817
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number17
StatePublished - 26 Apr 2016
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was funded by Wellcome Trusts Cambridge-University College London Mental Health and Neurosciences Network Grant 095844/Z/11/Z (to E.E. and R.J.D.), Wellcome Trust Investigator Award 098362/Z/12/Z (to R.J.D.), the Gatsby Charitable Foundation (P.D.), and Swiss National Science Foundation Grant 151641 (to T.U.H.).


  • Avoidance learning
  • Individual differences
  • Pain
  • Prediction errors
  • Striatum


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