Changes in the distribution of response rates across the CS-US interval: Evidence that responding switches between two distinct states.

15 August 2016

Two experiments used the peak procedure to examine timing of conditioned responses in a magazine approach paradigm with rats. A conditioned stimulus (CS) was reinforced with food on 50% of trials. Food was delivered at a fixed time, either 20 s, 30 s or 40 s into the CS presentation. Response rates were recorded during non-reinforced CS presentations that extended well beyond the scheduled time of food delivery. The mean response rate (averaged over many trials) increased during the CS, peaking at the expected time of reinforcement, and decreased again. Detailed analyses of the frequency distribution of response rates showed that responding was described by two distinct distributions, consistent with the rat being in a low response state on some trials and in a high response state on other trials. Modeling of these frequency distributions showed that the systematic rise and fall in response rate across a trial was primarily explained by a change in the proportion of time that the rat spent in the low versus high response state. However, the change in responding was also explained in part by a continuous shift in the high response state, such that responding in that state increased and then decreased gradually across the trial. These results support accounts that describe response timing as an abrupt change from low to high responding during the CS, but also provide evidence for a continuous change in conditioning strength across the duration of the CS. The implications of these findings for timing and associative theories of conditioning are discussed.