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A neurocomputational investigation of reinforcement-based decision making as a candidate latent vulnerability mechanism in maltreated children

  • Mattia I. Gerin (a1) (a2), Vanessa B. Puetz (a1) (a2), R. James R. Blair (a3), Stuart White (a3), Arjun Sethi (a1), Ferdinand Hoffmann (a1) (a2), Amy L. Palmer (a1), Essi Viding (a1) and Eamon J. McCrory (a1) (a2)...

Alterations in reinforcement-based decision making may be associated with increased psychiatric vulnerability in children who have experienced maltreatment. A probabilistic passive avoidance task and a model-based functional magnetic resonance imaging analytic approach were implemented to assess the neurocomputational components underlying decision making: (a) reinforcement expectancies (the representation of the outcomes associated with a stimulus) and (b) prediction error signaling (the ability to detect the differences between expected and actual outcomes). There were three main findings. First, the maltreated group (n = 18; mean age = 13), relative to nonmaltreated peers (n = 19; mean age = 13), showed decreased activity during expected value processing in a widespread network commonly associated with reinforcement expectancies representation, including the striatum (especially the caudate), the orbitofrontal cortex, and medial temporal structures including the hippocampus and insula. Second, consistent with previously reported hyperresponsiveness to negative cues in the context of childhood abuse, the maltreated group showed increased prediction error signaling in the middle cingulate gyrus, somatosensory cortex, superior temporal gyrus, and thalamus. Third, the maltreated group showed increased activity in frontodorsal regions and in the putamen during expected value representation. These findings suggest that early adverse environments disrupt the development of decision-making processes, which in turn may compromise psychosocial functioning in ways that increase latent vulnerability to psychiatric disorder.

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This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (, which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
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Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Mattia Indi Gerin, Division of Psychology and Language Sciences, University College London, Gower Street, London WC1 6BT, UK; E-mail:
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This work was funded by UK Economic and Social Research Council Grant ES/K005723/1 (to E.J.M. [Principal Investigator] and E.V.) and a PhD Impact studentship (M.I.G.) jointly funded by University College London and the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families. The last two authors contributed equally to this work.

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Development and Psychopathology
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