Human ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the positive affective processing of safety signals

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Human functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies suggest that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) contributes to the learned discrimination of threat and safety signals, although its precise contribution to these processes remains unclear. One hypothesis is that the vmPFC supports the positive affective processing of safety signals linked to their implicit stress-relieving properties. We set out to test this hypothesis and to examine the specificity of vmPFC responses to safety signal processing versus its high level of ‘default mode’ activity. Sixty participants completed an fMRI conditioning task that involved the generation of a conditioned threat (CS+) and safety (CS-) signal following the completion of a pre-conditioning baseline. Confirming past findings, activation of the vmPFC and other midline cortical and parietal areas – broadly resembling the default mode network – robustly discriminated between the CS- and CS+. However, when adjusting for this network's characteristic ‘baseline’ activity, only a subset of regions, including the vmPFC, was activated by the CS-. Regional selectivity for safety signal processing was confirmed by demonstrating a significant correlation between the magnitude of vmPFC responses and self-rated positive affect evoked by the CS-. Taken together, our current findings confirm a link between human vmPFC activity and the positive affective processing of safety signals. We discuss these findings with regards a broader model of human vmPFC function and its suggested higher-order contribution to emotionally adaptive behavior.

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