Opponent appetitive-aversive neural processes underlie predictive learning of pain relief.
Termination of a painful or unpleasant event can be rewarding. However, whether the brain treats relief in a similar way as it treats natural reward is unclear, and the neural processes that underlie its representation as a motivational goal remain poorly understood. We used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to investigate how humans learn to generate expectations of pain relief. Using a pavlovian conditioning procedure, we show that subjects experiencing prolonged experimentally induced pain can be conditioned to predict pain relief. This proceeds in a manner consistent with contemporary reward-learning theory (average reward/loss reinforcement learning), reflected by neural activity in the amygdala and midbrain. Furthermore, these reward-like learning signals are mirrored by opposite aversion-like signals in lateral orbitofrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex. This dual coding has parallels to 'opponent process' theories in psychology and promotes a formal account of prediction and expectation during pain.