Learning not to respond: Role of the hippocampus in withholding responses during omission training

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Autoshaping is a Pavlovian learning paradigm in which rats experience pairings of a CS and a US independently of their behavior. When the CS is a lever inserted into the test cage and the US is food delivered to an adjacent magazine, many rats acquire a lever-pressing response called ‘sign-tracking’ even though that response has no effect on the occurrence of either the CS or the US. Since these lever presses are always followed by the US, it has been suggested that sign-tracking could be due to unintended reinforcement of the response. To eliminate the possibility of such instrumental learning the omission schedule, in which a response to the CS cancels the US, was introduced. Previous research has shown that training rats on autoshaping and switching them to an omission schedule generally reduces but does not eliminate sign-tracking, suggesting that it may be due to both Pavlovian and instrumental learning. In the present study naive rats trained on an omission schedule sign-tracked less than a control group exposed to random, unpaired CS and US presentations, suggesting that they learned to withhold the lever press response because of the negative contingency between that response and the US. In a second experiment rats with dorsal hippocampus lesions sign-tracked more than sham-lesioned rats on omission schedules, suggesting that this case of learning not to respond is hippocampus-based. This conclusion is consistent with many previous findings on the inability of hippocampal rats to withhold or suppress responding, and with studies suggesting that one form of extinction of learned responses in normal rats is due to competition from hippocampus-based learning not to respond.

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