University of Vermont

Research and Animal Welfare

Looking at Learning

Pioneering work in UVM's Department of Psychology — connecting neural events and human behavior — has made our researchers in-demand speakers and contributors to journals where they translate basic experiments into insights that may lead to better treatment for issues like anxiety disorders and drug addiction.

How are they doing this?

Extinction learning — the process, for example, of teaching a dog that a bell no longer means food — inhibits original learning but doesn't erase it. Our researchers have discovered that extinction learning is dependent on the context or environment in which it is learned. So when a person leaves the therapist's office or rehab clinic, the lurking habit, fear, or addiction becomes the default, explaining the prevalence of relapse. Using rats, researchers space exposure trials at different intervals, teaching the rats a rhythm of sorts, then test when or whether the rats achieve extinction.

Why are animals important?

The study of behavior in animals cannot completely replace studies in humans. However, scientists can examine the neurological mechanisms of learning under a much more controlled environment in animals (for instance, diet, activity level, and light cycle can be controlled in animals much more easily than in humans). In addition, animals can be utilized for studies of unhealthy behavior (such as nicotine or alcohol addiction) in ways which would not be ethically tenable in human subjects.

What are the significant outcomes of this research?

Understanding ways that individuals can "unlearn" unhealthy behaviors may allow people to more easily stop smoking, control alcohol addiction, or maintain body weight in a more healthful range. This information potentially can help to control the epidemic of obesity in the developed nations or decrease the approximately 393,000 smoking-related deaths which occur annually in the U.S.

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