Safety learning, reward-prediction error and midbrain-striatal circuits

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This is one of two research projects studying the generation and regulation of fear responses. KU Leuven is the home institution for this project. To view the Melbourne-based partner project, click here.

Due to rapid climate changes and an increasing number of natural disasters many citizens feel ill-Threat and safety learning are rival associative learning processes that contribute to the generation and regulation of fear responses, respectively. Whereas the former relates to the processing of threats, the latter relates to their absence, and in doing so, serves to inhibit fear responses. Complementing this role, safety learning has been shown to evoke positive changes in affective state via distinct stress-relieving, reward-like properties. Thus, an emerging view of safety learning is that it encompasses active processes that lead to the regulation of fear and that promote reward-seeking behaviours. Despite growing interest in the construct of safety learning, including its clinical translational relevance, much remains to be understood about its underlying neurobiological basis. The goal of this project will be to examine a candidate neural mechanism of safety learning behaviours – the midbrain-striatal ‘reward prediction error’ (RPE). Specifically, this project will target the contribution of omission RPEs (signalling omission of threat) to safety learning processes, including the experience of relief and positive affective change. In the project’s first phase (KUL), novel experimental paradigms will be developed in order to effectively model omission RPEs on safety learning outcomes across autonomic, subjective and behavioural domains.

This work will then be translated to a functional neuroimaging investigation (UOM) to characterise the neural circuitry basis of omission RPEs, with an emphasis on high-resolution anatomical mapping of midbrain-striatal neural responses. Due to rapid climate changes and an increasing number of natural disasters many citizens feel ill-Threat and safety learning are rival associative learning processes that contribute to the generation and regulation of fear responses, respectively. Whereas the former relates to the processing of threats, the latter relates to their absence, and in doing so, serves to inhibit fear responses. Complementing this role, safety learning has been shown to evoke positive changes in affective state via distinct stress-relieving, reward-like properties. Thus, an emerging view of safety learning is that it encompasses active processes that lead to the regulation of fear and that promote reward-seeking behaviours.

Despite growing interest in the construct of safety learning, including its clinical translational relevance, much remains to be understood about its underlying neurobiological basis. The goal of this project will be to examine a candidate neural mechanism of safety learning behaviours – the midbrain-striatal ‘reward prediction error’ (RPE). Specifically, this project will target the contribution of omission RPEs (signalling omission of threat) to safety learning processes, including the experience of relief and positive affective change. In the project’s first phase (KUL), novel experimental paradigms will be developed in order to effectively model omission RPEs on safety learning outcomes across autonomic, subjective and behavioural domains. This work will then be translated to a functional neuroimaging investigation (UOM) to characterise the neural circuitry basis of omission RPEs, with an emphasis on high-resolution anatomical mapping of midbrain-striatal neural responses.

Project goals

Basic learning theory dictates that safety learning occurs only when a learned threat is omitted unexpectedly and generates a RPE. This idea is widely accepted, but never proven directly. Moreover, recent developments in exposure-based psychotherapy for clinical fears use this idea and boost the unexpectedness of threat omissions to optimize the learning of safety that counters the fear. The objective of the project is to develop and validate a novel behavioral paradigm to study the role of RPE in the learning of safety. Unexpected, but not expected, omissions of learned threat will trigger new safety learning.

Supervision team

*Click on the researcher's name above to learn more about their publication and grant successes.

Who we are looking for

We are seeking a PhD candidate with the following skills:

  • Demonstrated experience in the field of health and or psychological sciences
  • Demonstrated experience in behavioural sciences
  • Demonstrated ability to work independently and as part of a team
  • Demonstrated time and project management skills
  • Demonstrated ability to write research reports or other publications to a publishable standard (even if not published to date)
  • Excellent written and oral communication skills.
  • Demonstrated organisational skills, time management and ability to work to priorities.
  • Demonstrated problem-solving abilities.

Further details

The PhD candidate will benefit students who will be provided with a world-class graduate research training experience, that will include exposure to the broader research environments of KU Leuven and The University of Melbourne. In addition, they will be provided access to the broader graduate research support mechanisms provided by each institution, including early-career research networks, graduate research training opportunities and support services. The candidate will be supported to attend local and international research conferences, where appropriate, and will be actively connected to the supervisors’ broader research networks in order to facilitate future career development.

Prof Bram Vervliet directs the laboratory of Brain Research of Affective Mechanisms and more than a decade ago, he founded the European network of human fear conditioning. Building on this unique combination of skills and theoretical expertise, his team now conducts translational research with behavioural, psychophysiological and neuroimaging measurements in healthy individuals, anxiety patients, and rodents, to elucidate pathological mechanisms and optimize psychotherapeutic treatments for clinical anxiety.

Prof Ben Harrison is Professor of Cognitive and Clinical Neuroscience and holds dual appointments in the Department of Psychiatry (Deputy Head) and Melbourne Neuropsychiatry Centre (Deputy Scientific Director). Over the past decade, Ben has established the 'Depression and Anxiety Neuroscience' program at UoM: a research program devoted to the neuroscience of affective processes and their role in mood and anxiety disorders – the most common form of mental illness. His team conducts experimental functional neuroimaging research in healthy and clinical populations and has a central interest in the capacity for neuroimaging to inform treatment outcome prediction. This work has been continually supported by NHMRC fellowships and project grants.

This PhD project will be based at KU Leuven with a minimum 12-month stay at the University of Melbourne.

The candidate will be enrolled in the PhD program at the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences at KU Leuven, and in the PhD program at the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Melbourne.


To apply for this joint PhD opportunity, and to view the entry requirements, visit How to apply.

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