Social cognition, including complex social judgments and attitudes, is shaped by individual learning experiences, where affect often plays a critical role. Aversive classical conditioning-a form of associative learning involving a relationship between a neutral event (conditioned stimulus, CS) and an aversive event (unconditioned stimulus, US)-represents a well-controlled paradigm to study how the acquisition of socially relevant knowledge influences behavior and the brain. Unraveling the temporal unfolding of brain mechanisms involved appears critical for an initial understanding about how social cognition operates. Here, 128-channel ERPs were recorded in 50 subjects during the acquisition phase of a differential aversive classical conditioning paradigm. The CS+ (two fearful faces) were paired 50% of the time with an aversive noise (CS upward arrow + /Paired), whereas in the remaining 50% they were not (CS upward arrow + /Unpaired); the CS- (two different fearful faces) were never paired with the noise. Scalp ERP analyses revealed differences between CS upward arrow + /Unpaired and CS- as early as approximately 120 ms post-stimulus. Tomographic source localization analyses revealed early activation modulated by the CS+ in the ventral visual pathway (e.g. fusiform gyrus, approximately 120 ms), right middle frontal gyrus (approximately 176 ms), and precuneus (approximately 240 ms). At approximately 120 ms, the CS- elicited increased activation in the left insula and left middle frontal gyrus. These findings not only confirm a critical role of prefrontal, insular, and precuneus regions in aversive conditioning, but they also suggest that biologically and socially salient information modulates activation at early stages of the information processing flow, and thus furnish initial insight about how affect and social judgments operate.
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