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Stress and adaptive learning in alcohol dependent patients
Stress has been proposed to affect cognitive control capacities, including working memory (WM) maintenance. This effect may depend on variability in stress reactivity and past subjective stress. However, as most studies employed between-subjects designs, evidence for within-subject stress effects remains scarce. To understand the role of intra-individual stress effects on WM, we adopted a within-subject design to study how acute stress, variability in stress reactivity, and past subjective stress influence behavioral and neural WM mechanisms. Thirty-four healthy males performed a WM task during functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in a control versus acute stress condition following the Trier Social Stress Test, a validated psychosocial stressor method. We tested for stress effects on WM performance and related neural activation by associating them with individual acute stress responsivity and past subjective stress experience using retrospective self-report questionnaires. We found no evidence of an effect of acute stress or related stress-reactivity on intra-individual WM performance. However, past subjective stress negatively influenced acute stress-induced changes to WM. On the neural level, acute stress reduced WM-related activation in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC). The observed negative influence of inter-individual variability in past subjective stress experience on changes in WM performance, suggests that past subjective stress might induce vulnerability for impairing effects of acute stress on cognitive functioning. Because acute stress reduced WM-related dlPFC activation while WM performance remained unaffected, acute stress might boost neural processing efficiency in this group of high performing healthy individuals. Our study suggests that measures of past subjective stress should be considered when studying and interpreting the effects of acute stress on cognition.
Instrumental learning and decision-making rely on two parallel systems: a goal-directed and a habitual system. In the past decade, several paradigms have been developed to study these systems in animals and humans by means of e.g. overtraining, devaluation procedures and sequential decision-making. These different paradigms are thought to measure the same constructs, but cross-validation has rarely been investigated. In this study we compared two widely used paradigms that assess aspects of goal-directed and habitual behavior. We correlated parameters from a two-step sequential decision-making task that assesses model-based and model-free learning with a slips-of-action paradigm that assesses the ability to suppress cue-triggered, learnt responses when the outcome has been devalued and is therefore no longer desirable. Model-based control during the two-step task showed a very moderately positive correlation with goal-directed devaluation sensitivity, whereas model-free control did not. Interestingly, parameter estimates of model-based and goal-directed behavior in the two tasks were positively correlated with higher-order cognitive measures (e.g. visual short-term memory). These cognitive measures seemed to (at least partly) mediate the association between model-based control during sequential decision-making and goal-directed behavior after instructed devaluation. This study provides moderate support for a common framework to describe the propensity towards goal-directed behavior as measured with two frequently used tasks. However, we have to caution that the amount of shared variance between the goal-directed and model-based system in both tasks was rather low, suggesting that each task does also pick up distinct aspects of goal-directed behavior. Further investigation of the commonalities and differences between the model-free and habit systems as measured with these, and other, tasks is needed. Also, a follow-up cross-validation on the neural systems driving these constructs across different paradigms would promote the definition and operationalization of measures of instrumental learning and decision-making in humans.