Task-related dissociation in ERN amplitude as a function of obsessive-compulsive symptoms

Theo O.J. Gründler, James F. Cavanagh, Christina M. Figueroa, Michael J. Frank, John J.B. Allen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

94 Scopus citations


Hyperactive cortico-striatal circuits including the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) have been implicated to underlie obtrusive thoughts and repetitive behaviors in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Larger error-related negativities (ERNs) in OCD patients during simple flanker tasks have been proposed to reflect an amplified error signal in these hyperactive circuits. Such amplified error signals typically are associated with an adaptive change in response, yet in OCD these same repetitive responses persist to the point of distress and impairment. In contrast to this repetitive character of OC behavior, larger ERN amplitudes have been linked to better avoidance learning in reinforcement learning tasks. Study I thus investigated if OC symptomatology in non-patients predicted an enhanced ERN after suboptimal choices in a probabilistic learning task. Absent any behavioral differences, higher OC symptoms predicted smaller ERNs. Study II replicated this effect in an independent sample while also replicating findings of a larger ERN in a flanker task. There were no relevant behavioral differences in reinforcement learning or error monitoring as a function of symptom score. These findings implicate different, yet overlapping neural mechanisms underlying the negative deflection in the ERP following the execution of an erroneous motor response and the one following a suboptimal choice in a reinforcement learning paradigm. OC symptomatology may be dissociated in these neural systems, with hypoactivity in a system that enables learning to avoid maladaptive choices, and hyperactivity in another system that enables the same behavior to be repeated when it was assessed as not quite good enough the first time.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1978-1987
Number of pages10
Issue number8-9
StatePublished - Jul 2009


  • ERN
  • Error-related negativity
  • Event-related potentials
  • OCD
  • Reinforcement learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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