Relief as a reward: hedonic and neural responses to safety from pain.
Leknes S., Lee M., Berna C., Andersson J., Tracey I.
Relief fits the definition of a reward. Unlike other reward types the pleasantness of relief depends on the violation of a negative expectation, yet this has not been investigated using neuroimaging approaches. We hypothesized that the degree of negative expectation depends on state (dread) and trait (pessimism) sensitivity. Of the brain regions that are involved in mediating pleasure, the nucleus accumbens also signals unexpected reward and positive prediction error. We hypothesized that accumbens activity reflects the level of negative expectation and subsequent pleasant relief. Using fMRI and two purpose-made tasks, we compared hedonic and BOLD responses to relief with responses during an appetitive reward task in 18 healthy volunteers. We expected some similarities in task responses, reflecting common neural substrates implicated across reward types. However, we also hypothesized that relief responses would differ from appetitive rewards in the nucleus accumbens, since only relief pleasantness depends on negative expectations. The results confirmed these hypotheses. Relief and appetitive reward task activity converged in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which also correlated with appetitive reward pleasantness ratings. In contrast, dread and pessimism scores correlated with relief but not with appetitive reward hedonics. Moreover, only relief pleasantness covaried with accumbens activation. Importantly, the accumbens signal appeared to specifically reflect individual differences in anticipation of the adverse event (dread, pessimism) but was uncorrelated to appetitive reward hedonics. In conclusion, relief differs from appetitive rewards due to its reliance on negative expectations, the violation of which is reflected in relief-related accumbens activation.