I am interested in the environmental and neural basis of learning and memory in health and disease. In the laboratory, we use relatively simple preparations in planaria (an invertebrate), rats and humans to better understand the effects of different environmental variables, and then interrogate neural function. We collaborate with biologists, experimental psychologists and clinical psychologists to better understand these learning from fundamental, basic perspectives but also look for ways to turn this knowledge into the clinic.

Competition and facilitation in learning.

A good amount of work has been aimed at contrasting theories of learning. This has been done by investigating different forms of conditioned inhibition (Urcelay & Miller, 2006b; 2008a; Urcelay et al., 2009), overshadowing (Urcelay & Miller, 2006a), blocking (Witnauer, Urcelay & Miller, 2008), latent inhibition (McConnell et al., 2009). Some of this work has implications for a comparative analysis of cognition (Urcelay & Miller, 2010b). While most theories of learning would anticipate that a salient event overshadows learning to a less salient stimulus, we have identified situations in which the opposite is true – adding a salient event potentiates learning about a weak stimulus (Urcelay & Miller, 2009; Sissons, Urcelay & Miller, 2009). Recently we have argued for a dimensional analysis of cue competition and facilitation phenomena (Urcelay, 2017) that led to an ESRC Grant which we are currently working on. The generality of these phenomena, plus underlying psychological principles are being investigated.

Reconsolidation and extinction.

I have been interested in ways of making extinction more durable and less susceptible to recovery. Earlier work in rats and humans showed that the spacing of extinction trials (Urcelay, Wheeler & Miller, 2009; Orinstein, Urcelay & Miller, 2010) affects either within –session extinction or its recovery. Similarly, we have observed that extinguishing multiple stimuli together may reduce renewal, but there are constrains to this effect (Urcelay, Lipatova & Miller, 2009). Some of this work was summarized in Urcelay (2012). More recently, these issues have been pursued in collaboration (Carranza-Jasso et al., 2014). In addition, we have investigated the boundaries of retrieval-extinction treatments (Piñeyro et al., 2014) and also investigated how different training conditions, plus the amount of post-training exposure to the CS, jointly determine the outcome observed after the administration of amnestics drugs (Alfei et al., 2015). We have followed up on this work in Leicester using planaria, an invertebrate with god promise for a comparative analysis, and replicate the effects observed in rodents (Turel, Prados & Urcelay, 2020).

Avoidance learning.

Work in collaboration with Cambridge has looked at avoidance learning in rats and humans. We have developed a free-operant avoidance task in rats that allowed to answer a number of different questions (Fernando et al., 2015). For example, “safety signals” (stimuli associated with successful avoidance) provide relief, in that they inhibit avoidance behaviour during its presentation, but reinforce it in the absence of these signals (Fernando et al., 2014c – see Fernando et al., 2014a for analysis of neural basis). Using outcome revaluation techniques, Fernando observed bi-directional control of avoidance behaviour by shock or safety signal revaluation, and further investigated the neural basis (Fernando et al., 2014b). Work in humans using a shock avoidance task has revealed differences between OCD and control participants in the development of habits (Gillan et al., 2014). A follow up study replicated this effect and provided some evidence for neural correlates of these behavioural differences (Gillan et al., 2015; see Gillan, Urcelay & Robbins 2015 for an updated review on avoidance behaviour). Recently we have turned to investigate the extinction of avoidance behaviour in humans. Because avoidance is a hallmark of anxiety disorders, we have a key interest in understanding the conditions that lead to extinction of avoidance behaviour (see Urcelay & Prevel 2019 for a review), and also the recovery (i.e., renewal) that happens when tests are conducted outside of the extinction context (Urcelay, Symmons & Prevel, 2020 in preparation)

Roles of context in associative learning, retrieval and habituation.

Undoubtedly, contexts play a fundamental role in learning and performance, but different theories have assumed widely different roles for contextual information. We have identified one variable (the spacing of trials) which determines whether contextual stimuli act as discrete stimuli (and thus compete with target CSs) or as modulators (and thus facilitate retrieval of information – Urcelay & Miller, 2010a; Molet et al., 2010). This work was later applied to overtrained memories (Urcelay et al., 2012), and we have recently summarized this in a review (Urcelay & Miller, 2014). In planaria, we have recently investigated the context-dependence of habituation, with the larger goal of understanding processes of physiological adaptation that are mediated by learning mechanisms (Prados et al., 2020). Similarly, we have investigated the development of tolerance to nicotine’s effects and assessed whether such tolerance is context dependent and mediated by associative processes (Sal, Prados & Urcelay, 2020).

Current Lab Members

  • Dr José Alcala (Research Associate)
  • Dr Maïka Telga (Research Associate)
  • Liz Herrera de la Llave (Graduate Student)
  • Zehra Turel (Graduate Student)
  • Fatih Sal (Graduate Student)
  • Sam Johnston (Clinical Graduate Student)
  • Liam Jordan (Undergraduate Student)

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Department of Neuroscience, Psychology and Behaviour
University of Leicester
University Road

T: +44 (0)116 252 2922


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