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Published November 21, 2007 | Published + Supplemental Material
Journal Article Open

Reinforcement Learning Signals in the Human Striatum Distinguish Learners from Nonlearners during Reward-Based Decision Making


The computational framework of reinforcement learning has been used to forward our understanding of the neural mechanisms underlying reward learning and decision-making behavior. It is known that humans vary widely in their performance in decision-making tasks. Here, we used a simple four-armed bandit task in which subjects are almost evenly split into two groups on the basis of their performance: those who do learn to favor choice of the optimal action and those who do not. Using models of reinforcement learning we sought to determine the neural basis of these intrinsic differences in performance by scanning both groups with functional magnetic resonance imaging. We scanned 29 subjects while they performed the reward-based decision-making task. Our results suggest that these two groups differ markedly in the degree to which reinforcement learning signals in the striatum are engaged during task performance. While the learners showed robust prediction error signals in both the ventral and dorsal striatum during learning, the nonlearner group showed a marked absence of such signals. Moreover, the magnitude of prediction error signals in a region of dorsal striatum correlated significantly with a measure of behavioral performance across all subjects. These findings support a crucial role of prediction error signals, likely originating from dopaminergic midbrain neurons, in enabling learning of action selection preferences on the basis of obtained rewards. Thus, spontaneously observed individual differences in decision making performance demonstrate the suggested dependence of this type of learning on the functional integrity of the dopaminergic striatal system in humans.

Additional Information

© 2007 Society for Neuroscience. Received June 1, 2007; revised Oct. 5, 2007; accepted Oct. 6, 2007. This work was supported by Adams Super Center Grant 6194-1 for brain studies in Tel Aviv University (D.J.), a grant from the Chief Scientist Office of the Ministry of Health, Israel (D.J.), and by a grant from the United States–Israel Binational Science Foundation, Jerusalem, Israel (D.J., J.P.O.). T.S. is supported by The Functional Human Brain Mapping Unit, a Joint Project of Levi–Edersheim–Gitter Institute, Tel Aviv University, and Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center. J.P.O. is also supported by a Searle scholarship and by a grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore foundation.

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Supplemental Material - Supplemental_JN-RM-2496-07.R2.pdf


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August 22, 2023
October 18, 2023