The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is thought to be overacting in patients with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) reflecting an enhanced action monitoring system. However, influences of conflict and error-likelihood have not been explored. Here, the error-related negativity (ERN) originating in ACC served as a measure of conflict and error-likelihood during memory recognition following different learning modes. Errorless learning prevents the generation of false memory candidates and has been shown to be superior to trial-and-error-learning. The latter, errorful learning, introduces false memory candidates which interfere with correct information in later recognition leading to enhanced conflict processing.
Sixteen OCD patients according to DSM-IV criteria and 16 closely matched healthy controls participated voluntarily in the event-related potential study. Both, OCD- and control group showed enhanced memory performance following errorless compared to errorful learning. Nevertheless, response-locked data showed clear modulations of the ERN amplitude. OCD patients compared to controls showed an increased error-likelihood effect after errorless learning. However, with increased conflict after errorful learning, OCD patients showed a reduced error-likelihood effect in contrast to controls who showed an increase.
The increase of the errorlikelihood effect for OCD patients within low conflict situations (recognition after errorless learning) might be conceptualized as a hyperactive monitoring system. However, within high conflict situations (recognition after EF-learning) the opposite effect was observed: whereas the control group showed an increased error-likelihood effect, the OCD group showed a reduction of the error-likelihood effect based on altered ACC learning rates in response to errors. These findings support theoretical frameworks explaining differences in ACC activity on the basis of conflict and perceived error-likelihood as influenced by individual error learning rate.