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©2015 the authors. The role of neurons in the substantia nigra (SN) and ventral tegmental area (VTA) of the midbrain in contributing to the elicitation of reward prediction errors during appetitive learning has been well established. Less is known about the differential contribution of these midbrain regions to appetitive versus aversive learning, especially in humans. Here we scanned human participants with high-resolution fMRI focused on the SN and VTA while they participated in a sequential Pavlovian conditioning paradigm involving an appetitive outcome (a pleasant juice), as well as an aversive outcome (an unpleasant bitter and salty flavor). We found a degree of regional specialization within the SN: Whereas a region of ventromedial SN correlated with a temporal difference reward prediction error during appetitive Pavlovian learning, a dorsolateral area correlated instead with an aversive expected value signal in response to the most distal cue, and to a reward prediction error in response to the most proximal cue to the aversive outcome. Furthermore, participants’ affective reactions to both the appetitive and aversive conditioned stimuli more than 1 year after the fMRI experiment was conducted correlated with activation in the ventromedial and dorsolateral SN obtained during the experiment, respectively. These findings suggest that, whereas the human ventromedial SN contributes to long-term learning about rewards, the dorsolateral SN may be particularly important for long-term learning in aversive contexts.

Original publication




Journal article


Journal of Neuroscience

Publication Date





14220 - 14233