Erasing the engram: the unlearning of procedural skills

Matthew J. Crossley, F. Gregory Ashby*, W. Todd Maddox

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Citations (Scopus)


Huge amounts of money are spent every year on unlearning programs-in drug-treatment facilities, prisons, psychotherapy clinics, and schools. Yet almost all of these programs fail, since recidivism rates are high in each of these fields. Progress on this problem requires a better understanding of the mechanisms that make unlearning so difficult. Much cognitive neuroscience evidence suggests that an important component of these mechanisms also dictates success on categorization tasks that recruit procedural learning and depend on synaptic plasticity within the striatum. A biologically detailed computational model of this striatal-dependent learning is described (based on Ashby&Crossley, 2011). The model assumes that a key component of striatal-dependent learning is provided by interneurons in the striatum called the tonically active neurons (TANs), which act as a gate for the learning and expression of striatal-dependent behaviors. In their tonically active state, the TANs prevent the expression of any striatal-dependent behavior. However, they learn to pause in rewarding environments and thereby permit the learning and expression of striatal-dependent behaviors. The model predicts that when rewards are no longer contingent on behavior, the TANs cease to pause, which protects striatal learning from decay and prevents unlearning. In addition, the model predicts that when rewards are partially contingent on behavior, the TANs remain partially paused, leaving the striatum available for unlearning. The results from 3 human behavioral studies support the model predictions and suggest a novel unlearning protocol that shows promising initial signs of success.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)710-741
Number of pages32
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: General
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • unlearning
  • procedural learning
  • categorization
  • striatum
  • tonically active neurons


Dive into the research topics of 'Erasing the engram: the unlearning of procedural skills'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this