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Minimizing threat via heuristic and optimal policies recruits hippocampus and medial prefrontal cortex


Jointly minimizing multiple threats over extended time horizons enhances survival. Consequently, many tests of approach–avoidance conflicts incorporate multiple threats for probing corollaries of animal and human anxiety. To facilitate computations necessary for threat minimization, the human brain may concurrently harness multiple decision policies and associated neural controllers, but it is unclear which. We combine a task that mimics foraging under predation with behavioural modelling and functional neuroimaging. Human choices rely on immediate predator probability—a myopic heuristic policy—and on the optimal policy, which integrates all relevant variables. Predator probability relates positively and the associated choice uncertainty relates negatively to activations in the anterior hippocampus, amygdala and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. The optimal policy is positively associated with dorsomedial prefrontal cortex activity. We thus provide a decision-theoretic outlook on the role of the human hippocampus, amygdala and prefrontal cortex in resolving approach–avoidance conflicts relevant for anxiety and integral for survival.

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Data availability

The behavioural data that support the findings of this study are publicly available at github ( and at figshare ( The neuroimaging data that support the findings of this study are publicly available at neurovault (

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The code used for the analyses is available at github (

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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We thank G. Castegnetti, S. Khemka, M. Staib, A. Tzovara and C. Ioan for discussions and help with data acquisition. The Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging is supported by a strategic grant from the Wellcome Trust (091593/Z/10/Z). C.W.K. was supported by two grants from the German Research Foundation (DFG) during the final stages of manuscript preparation: the collaborative research centre SFB TRR 169 and an Emmy Noether Research Group (392443797). The funders had no role in the study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information

C.W.K. and D.R.B. designed the experiment, developed the analysis procedures and wrote the paper. C.W.K. collected and analysed the data.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Correspondence to Christoph W. Korn.

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Fig. 1: Task outline.
Fig. 2: Models of choice data in the fMRI sample.
Fig. 3: fMRI results during the choice phase.
Fig. 4: Visualization of the clusters in the hippocampus extending into the amygdala.