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Neurocognitive mechanisms of mental imagery-based disgust learning.

Disgust imagery represents a potential pathological mechanism for disgust-related disorders. However, it remains controversial as to whether disgust can be conditioned with disgust-evoking mental imagery serving as the unconditioned stimulus (US). Therefore, we examined this using a conditioned learning paradigm in combination with event-related potential (ERP) analysis in 35 healthy college students. The results indicated that the initial neutral face (conditioned stimulus, CS+) became more disgust-evoking, unpleasant, and arousing after pairing with disgust-evoking imagery (disgust CS+), compared to pairing with neutral (neutral CS+) and no (CS-) imagery. Moreover, we observed that mental imagery-based disgust conditioning was resistant to extinction. While the disgust CS + evoked larger P3 and late positive potential amplitudes than CS- during acquisition, no significant differences were found between disgust CS+ and neutral CS+, indicating a dissociation between self-reported and neurophysiological responses. Future studies may additionally acquire facial EMG as an implicit index of conditioned disgust. This study provides the first neurobiological evidence that associative disgust learning can occur without aversive physical stimuli, with implications for understanding how disgust-related disorders may manifest or deteriorate without external perceptual aversive experiences, such as in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

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