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Updated theoretical accounts of the role of serotonin (5-HT) in motivation propose that 5-HT operates at the intersection of aversion and inhibition, promoting withdrawal in the face of aversive predictions. However, the specific cognitive mechanisms through which 5-HT modulates withdrawal behavior remain poorly understood. Behavioral inhibition in response to punishments reflects at least two concurrent processes: instrumental aversive predictions linking stimuli, responses, and punishments, and Pavlovian aversive predictions linking stimuli and punishments irrespective of response. In the current study, we examined to what extent 5-HT modulates the impact of instrumental vs Pavlovian aversive predictions on behavioral inhibition. We used acute tryptophan depletion to lower central 5-HT levels in healthy volunteers, and observed behavior in a novel task designed to measure the influence of Pavlovian and instrumental aversive predictions on choice (response bias) and response vigor (response latencies). After placebo treatment, participants were biased against responding on the button that led to punishment, and they were slower to respond in a punished context, relative to a non-punished context. Specifically, participants slowed their responses in the presence of stimuli predictive of punishments. Tryptophan depletion removed the bias against responding on the punished button, and abolished slowing in the presence of punished stimuli, irrespective of response. We suggest that this set of results can be explained by a role for 5-HT in Pavlovian aversive predictions. These findings suggest additional specificity for the influence of 5-HT on aversively motivated behavioral inhibition and extend recent models of the role of 5-HT in aversive predictions.

Original publication




Journal article



Publication Date





2244 - 2252


Adult, Choice Behavior, Conditioning, Classical, Female, Humans, Inhibition (Psychology), Male, Motivation, Punishment, Reaction Time, Reward, Serotonin, Tryptophan