Representational Uncertainty in the Brain During Threat Conditioning and the Link With Psychopathic Traits

Inti A. Brazil, Christoph D. Mathys, Arne Popma, Sylco S. Hoppenbrouwers, Moran D. Cohn

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Background Psychopathy has repeatedly been linked to disturbed associative learning from aversive events (i.e., threat conditioning). Optimal threat conditioning requires the generation of internal representations of stimulus–outcome contingencies and the rate with which these may change. Because mental representations are imperfect, there will always be uncertainty about the accuracy of representations in the brain (i.e., representational uncertainty). However, it remains unclear 1) to what extent threat conditioning is susceptible to different types of uncertainty in representations about contingencies during the acquisition phase and 2) how representational uncertainty relates to psychopathic features. Methods A computational model was applied to functional neuroimaging data to estimate uncertainty in representations of contingencies (CoUn) and the rate of change of contingencies (RUn), respectively, from brain activation during the acquisition phase of threat conditioning in 132 adolescents at risk of developing antisocial personality profiles. Next, the associations between these two types of representational uncertainty and psychopathy-related dimensions were examined. Results The left and right amygdala activations were associated with CoUn, while the bilateral insula and the right amygdala were associated with RUn. Different patterns of relationships were found between psychopathic features and each type of uncertainty. Callous-unemotional traits and impulsive-irresponsible traits uniquely predicted increased CoUn, while only impulsive-irresponsible traits predicted increased RUn. Conclusions The findings suggest that 1) the insula and amygdala differ in how these regions are affected by different types of representational uncertainty during threat conditioning and 2) CoUn and RUn have different patterns of relationships with psychopathy-related dimensions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)689-695
Number of pages7
JournalBiological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2017


  • Amygdala
  • Computational modeling
  • Fear conditioning
  • Insula
  • Psychopathy
  • Representations
  • Threat conditioning
  • Uncertainty

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