Social neuroscience studies have shown that the ventral striatum (VS), a highly reward-sensitive brain area, is activated when participants win competitive tasks. However, in these settings winning often entails both avoiding punishment and punishing the opponent. It is thus unclear whether the rewarding properties of winning are mainly associated to punishment avoidance, or if punishing the opponent can be additionally gratifying. In the present paper we explored the neurophysiological correlates of each outcome, aiming to better understand the development of aggression episodes. We previously introduced a competitive reaction time task that separates both effects: in half of the won trials, participants can physically punish their opponent (active trials), whereas in the other half they can only avoid a punishment (passive trials). We performed functional connectivity analysis seeded in the VS to test for differential network interactions in active compared to passive trials. The VS showed greater connectivity with areas involved in reward valuation (orbitofrontal cortex), arousal (dorsal thalamus and posterior insula), attention (inferior occipital gyrus), and motor control (supplementary motor area) in active compared to passive trials, whereas connectivity between the VS and the inferior frontal gyrus decreased. Interindividual variability in connectivity strength between VS and posterior insula was related to aggressive behavior, whereas connectivity between VS and supplementary motor area was related to faster reaction times in active trials. Our results suggest that punishing a provoking opponent when winning might adaptively favor a “competitive state” in the course of an aggressive interaction.
Research Areas and Centers
- Academic Focus: Center for Brain, Behavior and Metabolism (CBBM)