Behavioral Social Neuroscience Seminar
Stimuli that possess inherently rewarding or aversive qualities elicit emotional responses and also induce learning by imparting valence upon neutral sensory cues. Evidence has accumulated implicating the amygdala as a critical structure in mediating these processes. In this talk, I will review recent work in which we developed a genetic strategy to identify the representations of rewarding and aversive unconditioned stimuli (USs) in the basolateral amygdala (BLA) and then examined their role in innate and learned responses. We demonstrate that neural representations of conditioned and unconditioned stimuli ultimately connect to US-responsive cells in the BLA to elicit both innate and learned responses. However, the capacity to control emotions through cognitive operations indicates that neural representations of the emotional significance of stimuli must be able to be regulated in a flexible manner. Neurons in prefrontal cortex (PFC) are known to encode rules, goals and other abstract information, and thereby could play a critical role in the flexible regulation of emotion. I will review evidence that the amygdala also encodes abstract information that could underlie this flexibility. Further, I will present data that provides new insights into the genesis of cognitive processing in the amygdala.