Investigating Pain-Related Avoidance Behavior using a Robotic Arm-Reaching Paradigm

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Abstract

Avoidance behavior is a key contributor to the transition from acute pain to chronic pain disability. Yet, there has been a lack of ecologically valid paradigms to experimentally investigate pain-related avoidance. To fill this gap, we developed a paradigm (the robotic arm-reaching paradigm) to investigate the mechanisms underlying the development of pain-related avoidance behavior. Existing avoidance paradigms (mostly in the context of anxiety research) have often operationalized avoidance as an experimenter-instructed, low-cost response, superimposed on stimuli associated with threat during a Pavlovian fear conditioning procedure. In contrast, the current method offers increased ecological validity in terms of instrumental learning (acquisition) of avoidance, and by adding a cost to the avoidance response. In the paradigm, participants perform arm-reaching movements from a starting point to a target using a robotic arm, and freely choose between three different movement trajectories to do so. The movement trajectories differ in probability of being paired with a painful electrocutaneous stimulus, and in required effort in terms of deviation and resistance. Specifically, the painful stimulus can be (partly) avoided at the cost of performing movements requiring increased effort. Avoidance behavior is operationalized as the maximal deviation from the shortest trajectory on each trial. In addition to explaining how the new paradigm can help understand the acquisition of avoidance, we describe adaptations of the robotic arm-reaching paradigm for (1) examining the spread of avoidance to other stimuli (generalization), (2) modeling clinical treatment in the lab (extinction of avoidance using response prevention), as well as (3) modeling relapse, and return of avoidance following extinction (spontaneous recovery). Given the increased ecological validity, and numerous possibilities for extensions and/or adaptations, the robotic arm-reaching paradigm offers a promising tool to facilitate the investigation of avoidance behavior and to further our understanding of its underlying processes.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere61717
JournalJournal of visualized experiment
Issue number164
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 3 Oct 2020

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