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Surviving threats: neural circuit and computational implications of a new taxonomy of defensive behaviour

Abstract

Research on defensive behaviour in mammals has in recent years focused on elicited reactions; however, organisms also make active choices when responding to danger. We propose a hierarchical taxonomy of defensive behaviour on the basis of known psychological processes. Included are three categories of reactions (reflexes, fixed reactions and habits) and three categories of goal-directed actions (direct action–outcome behaviours and actions based on implicit or explicit forecasting of outcomes). We then use this taxonomy to guide a summary of findings regarding the underlying neural circuits.

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Figure 1: Neural circuits underlying innate reactions and instrumental actions and habits.
Figure 2: Switching between reactive and active coping during active avoidance learning.
Figure 3: Proposed circuits for deliberative defensive actions.

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Acknowledgements

The authors were supported by the US National Institutes of Health (grants R56DA029053 and R01MH38774 to J.L.) and the US Army Research Office (grant W911NF-16-1-0474 to N.D.D.).

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J.L. and N.D.D. made substantial contributions to discussions of the content of the article, wrote the article and reviewed and/or edited the manuscript before submission.

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Glossary

Innate behaviours

Behaviours, such as reflexes and fixed responses, that all members of a species share as part of their heritage and that make minimal demands on learning.

Instrumental responses

Responses that are learned because of their relationship with some consequent outcome (such as safety or food) and include both actions and habits.

Habits

Learned behaviours that are acquired as a result of their initial relation to an outcome but do not depend on the value of the outcome.

Actions

Behaviours that result in an expected outcome as a consequence of a previously learned contingency between the behaviour and its outcome (action–outcome behaviours) or of deliberative cognitive forecasting (implicit or explicit) of a possible outcome.

Reactions

Behaviours — such as reflexes, fixed responses and habits — that are directly elicited by innate or learned stimuli.

Startle

A flinch-like behavioural reflex often studied in the laboratory by using sudden, loud acoustic stimuli.

Pavlovian conditioning

The process through which animals learn to associate initially arbitrary stimuli with biologically important stimuli such as threats.

World model

An internal representation of the contingencies of the environment, such as a spatial map or the steps in a task.

Appetitive conditioning

Learning based on the prediction of rewards.

Active avoidance

A type of experimental task in which organisms must produce a particular response to avoid harm.

Reward devaluation

An experimental procedure in which the value of an action's outcome is reduced; used to verify that the action is goal-directed as opposed to habitual.

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LeDoux, J., Daw, N. Surviving threats: neural circuit and computational implications of a new taxonomy of defensive behaviour. Nat Rev Neurosci 19, 269–282 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn.2018.22

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