The brain "reward" system, centered on the limbic ventral striatum, plays a critical role in the response to pleasure and pain. The ventral striatum is activated in animal and human studies during anticipation of appetitive/pleasurable events, but its role in aversive/painful events is less clear. Here we present data from three human fMRI studies based on aversive conditioning using unpleasant cutaneous electrical stimulation and show that the ventral striatum is reliably activated. This activation is observed during anticipation and is not a consequence of relief after the aversive event. Further, the ventral striatum is activated in anticipation regardless of whether there is an opportunity to avoid the aversive stimulus or not. Our data suggest that the ventral striatum, a crucial element of the brain "reward" system, is directly activated in anticipation of aversive stimuli.
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