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To monitor the environment for social threat humans must build affective evaluations of others. These evaluations are malleable and to a high degree shaped by responses engendered by specific social encounters. The precise neuronal mechanism by which these evaluations are constructed is poorly understood. We tested a hypothesis that conjoint activity in amygdala and fusiform gyrus would correlate with acquisition of social stimulus value. We tested this using a reinforcement learning algorithm, Q-learning, that assigned values to faces as a function of a history of pairing, or not pairing, with aversive shocks. Behaviourally, we observed a correlation between conditioning induced changes in skin conductance response (SCR) and subjective ratings for likeability of faces. Activity in both amygdala and fusiform gyrus (FG) correlated with the output of the reinforcement learning algorithm parameterized by these ratings. In amygdala, this effect was greater for averted than direct gaze faces. Furthermore, learning-related activity change in these regions correlated with SCR and subjective ratings. We conclude that amygdala and fusiform encode affective value in a manner that closely approximates a standard computational solution to learning.
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Social relations between humans critically depend on our affective experiences of others. Oxytocin enhances prosocial behavior, but its effect on humans' affective experience of others is not known. We tested whether oxytocin influences affective ratings, and underlying brain activity, of faces that have been aversively conditioned. Using a standard conditioning procedure, we induced differential negative affective ratings in faces exposed to an aversive conditioning compared with nonconditioning manipulation. This differential negative evaluative effect was abolished by treatment with oxytocin, an effect associated with an attenuation of activity in anterior medial temporal and anterior cingulate cortices. In amygdala and fusiform gyrus, this modulation was stronger for faces with direct gaze, relative to averted gaze, consistent with a relative specificity for socially relevant cues. The data suggest that oxytocin modulates the expression of evaluative conditioning for socially relevant faces via influences on amygdala and fusiform gyrus, an effect that may explain its prosocial effects.
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