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Rapid plasticity in the prefrontal cortex during affective associative learning
MultiCS conditioning is an affective associative learning paradigm, in which affective categories consist of many similar and complex stimuli. Comparing visual processing before and after learning, recent MultiCS conditioning studies using time-sensitive magnetoencephalography (MEG) revealed enhanced activation of prefrontal cortex (PFC) regions towards emotionally paired versus neutral stimuli already during short-latency processing stages (i.e., 50 to 80 ms after stimulus onset). The present study aimed at showing that this rapid differential activation develops as a function of the acquisition and not the extinction of the emotional meaning associated with affectively paired stimuli. MEG data of a MultiCS conditioning study were analyzed with respect to rapid changes in PFC activation towards aversively (electric shock) paired and unpaired faces that occurred during the learning of stimulus-reinforcer contingencies. Analyses revealed an increased PFC activation towards paired stimuli during 50 to 80 ms already during the acquisition of contingencies, which emerged after a single pairing with the electric shock. Corresponding changes in stimulus valence could be observed in ratings of hedonic valence, although participants did not seem to be aware of contingencies. These results suggest rapid formation and access of emotional stimulus meaning in the PFC as well as a great capacity for adaptive and highly resolving learning in the brain under challenging circumstances.