Use of pavlovian conditioning techniques to study disorders of attention and learning

Mark E. Stanton, Michela Gallagher

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A century of research on Pavlovian conditioning has produced a powerful experimental paradigm for studying behavioral and biological mechanisms of attention, learning, and memory. In the last three decades, historical conceptions of Pavlovian conditioning as a rigid process, relegated to the control of unconscious reflexes, have given way to an expanded, modern view, which links conditioning to a number of cognitive processes that may operate in diverse behavioral contexts. Over the same period, research on the neurobiology of learning has identified the neural circuitry for some instances of simple conditioning. This research has also begun to reveal brain systems that are important for "higher-order" conditioning phenomena which depend on attentional and other cognitive processes. In addition, a large and growing body of literature has emerged that examines developmental and comparative aspects of Pavlovian conditioning. In this article, we outline these developments and show how Pavlovian conditioning procedures could be used to study developmental disorders of attention and learning. We illustrate experimental preparations and designs that can identify and characterize the psychological components, neurological mechanisms, and developmental origins of such disorders, and that can help examine parallels between such disorders in humans and in animal models. We argue that these features of Pavlovian conditioning make it an excellent paradigm for studying the biological basis of mental retardation and developmental disabilities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)234-242
Number of pages9
JournalMental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Research Reviews
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1996
Externally publishedYes


  • Amygdala
  • Cerebellum
  • Cognition
  • Development
  • Hippocampus
  • Memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Genetics(clinical)


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