Electrophysiological markers of the motivational salience of delay imposition and escape
Background The ubiquitous tendency to choose immediate over delayed rewards can, in extremis, lead to maladaptive preferences for smaller sooner over larger later rewards (i.e., impulsive choice) in certain pathological groups. The delay aversion hypothesis provides one possible account of impulsive choice and argues that this tendency is motivated by the avoidance of the negative affective states associated with delay imposed prior to the delivery of a large reward. This model also predicts that on non-choice tasks individuals will be motivated to work harder and more efficiently, when given the opportunity to avoid delay. In the current paper we studied the neural markers of the motivational salience of the imposition and escape from delay using a simple reaction time task under two conditions: First where fast responses were expected to lead to delay escape and second where delay was inescapable. Methods Forty participants performed the Escape Delay Incentive (EDI) task during which they were asked to respond as quickly as they could to a target stimulus. The EDI task included two conditions: first, a Delay Escape condition where fast responses led to the avoidance of delay and a Delay No-Escape condition in which a delay was presented on every trial irrespective of response speed. EEG was recorded from 66 equidistant electrode sites across the scalp. The neural response in these two conditions was compared in terms of contingent negative variation (CNV; preparation of motivated responses) and late positive potential, LPP; evaluation of performance feedback). Results As predicted individuals responded more quickly and showed enhanced CNV amplitude to Delay Escape compared with Delay No-Escape trials. Enhanced LPP amplitude was also observed when participants were not able to avoid the delay in the Delay Escape condition. ADHD symptoms were associated with larger CNV differences between Delay Escape and Delay No-Escape conditions. An association between ADHD symptoms and the LPP in the Delay Escape condition did not reach significance. Conclusion The results of the current study suggest that delay escape is a potent reinforcer at both behavioural and neural levels. Future research should extend this analysis to clinical samples using a broader range of delays and across imaging modalities.