Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Learned habitual responses to environmental stimuli allow efficient interaction with the environment, freeing cognitive resources for more demanding tasks. However, when the outcome of such actions is no longer a desired goal, established stimulus–response (S-R) associations or habits must be overcome. Among people with substance use disorders (SUDs), difficulty in overcoming habitual responses to stimuli associated with their addiction in favor of new, goal-directed behaviors contributes to relapse. Animal models of habit learning demonstrate that chronic self-administration of drugs of abuse promotes habitual responding beyond the domain of compulsive drug seeking. However, whether a similar propensity toward domain-general habitual responding occurs in humans with SUDs has remained unclear. To address this question, we used a visuomotor S-R learning and relearning task, the Hidden Association between Images Task, which employs abstract visual stimuli and manual responses. This task allows us to measure new S-R association learning and well-learned S-R association execution and includes a response contingency change manipulation to quantify the degree to which responding is habit-based, rather than goal-directed. We find that people with SUDs learn new S-R associations as well as healthy control participants do. Moreover, people with an SUD history slightly outperform controls in S-R execution. In contrast, people with SUDs are specifically impaired in overcoming well-learned S-R associations; those with SUDs make a significantly greater proportion of perseverative errors during well-learned S-R replacement, indicating the more habitual nature of their responses. Thus, with equivalent training and practice, people with SUDs appear to show enhanced domain-general habit formation.