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05-10-2020 | Original Article Open Access

Inducing Affective Learning Biases with Cognitive Training and Prefrontal tDCS: A Proof-of-Concept Study

Cognitive Therapy and Research
Margot Juliëtte Overman, Michael Browning, Jacinta O’Shea
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Electronic supplementary material

The online version of this article (https://​doi.​org/​10.​1007/​s10608-020-10146-9) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
Michael Browning and Jacinta O’Shea contributed equally to this paper.

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Cognitive models of mood disorders emphasize a causal role of negative affective biases in depression. Computational work suggests that these biases may stem from a belief that negative events have a higher information content than positive events, resulting in preferential processing of and learning from negative outcomes. Learning biases therefore represent a promising target for therapeutic interventions. In this proof-of-concept study in healthy volunteers, we assessed the malleability of biased reinforcement learning using a novel cognitive training paradigm and concurrent transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS).


In two studies, young healthy adults completed two sessions of negative (n = 20) or positive (n = 20) training designed to selectively increase learning from loss or win outcomes, respectively. During training active or sham tDCS was applied bilaterally to dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Analyses tested for changes both in learning rates and win- and loss-driven behaviour. Potential positive/negative emotional transfer of win/loss learning was assessed by a facial emotion recognition task and mood questionnaires.


Negative and positive training increased learning rates for losses and wins, respectively. With negative training, there was also a trend for win (but not loss) learning rates to decrease over successive task blocks. After negative training, there was evidence for near transfer in the form of an increase in loss-driven choices when participants performed a similar (untrained) task. There was no change in far transfer measures of emotional face processing or mood. tDCS had no effect on any aspect of behaviour.

Discussion and Conclusions

Negative training induced a mild negative bias in healthy adults as reflected in loss-driven choice behaviour. Prefrontal tDCS had no effect. Further research is needed to assess if this training procedure can be adapted to enhance learning from positive outcomes and whether effects translate to affective disorders.

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