Prefrontal Cortex Representation of Learning of Punishment Probability during Reward-Motivated Actions

David S. Jacobs, Bita Moghaddam

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


Actions executed toward obtaining a reward are frequently associated with the probability of harm occurring during action execution. Learning this probability allows for appropriate computation of future harm to guide action selection. Impaired learning of this probability may be critical for the pathogenesis of anxiety or reckless and impulsive behavior. Here we designed a task for punishment probability learning during reward-guided actions to begin to understand the neuronal basis of this form of learning, and the biological or environmental variables that influence action selection after learning. Male and female Long-Evans rats were trained in a seek-take behavioral paradigm where the seek action was associated with varying probability of punishment. The take action remained safe and was followed by reward delivery. Learning was evident as subjects selectively adapted seek action behavior as a function of punishment probability. Recording of neural activity in the mPFC during learning revealed changes in phasic mPFC neuronal activity during risky-seek actions but not during the safe take actions or reward delivery, revealing that this region is involved in learning of probabilistic punishment. After learning, the variables that influenced behavior included reinforcer and punisher value, pretreatment with the anxiolytic diazepam, and biological sex. In particular, females were more sensitive to probabilistic punishment than males. These data demonstrate that flexible encoding of risky actions by mPFC is involved in probabilistic punishment learning and provide a novel behavioral approach for studying the pathogenesis of anxiety and impulsivity with inclusion of sex as a biological variable.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)5063-5077
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number26
StatePublished - Jun 24 2020


  • Anxiety
  • Decision making
  • Fiber photometry
  • Impulsivity
  • MPFC
  • Sex as a biological variable

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)


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