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J Cogn Neurosci. 2014 Dec;26(12):2670-81. doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_00677. Epub 2014 Jun 24.

Adolescents adapt more slowly than adults to varying reward contingencies.

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  • 1Technische Universität Dresden.


It has been suggested that adolescents process rewards differently from adults, both cognitively and affectively. In an fMRI study we recorded brain BOLD activity of adolescents (age range = 14-15 years) and adults (age range = 20-39 years) to investigate the developmental changes in reward processing and decision-making. In a probabilistic reversal learning task, adolescents and adults adapted to changes in reward contingencies. We used a reinforcement learning model with an adaptive learning rate for each trial to model the adolescents' and adults' behavior. Results showed that adolescents possessed a shallower slope in the sigmoid curve governing the relation between expected value (the value of the expected feedback, +1 and -1 representing rewarding and punishing feedback, respectively) and probability of stay (selecting the same option as in the previous trial). Trial-by-trial change in expected values after being correct or wrong was significantly different between adolescents and adults. These values were closer to certainty for adults. Additionally, absolute value of model-derived prediction error for adolescents was significantly higher after a correct response but a punishing feedback. At the neural level, BOLD correlates of learning rate, expected value, and prediction error did not significantly differ between adolescents and adults. Nor did we see group differences in the prediction error-related BOLD signal for different trial types. Our results indicate that adults seem to behaviorally integrate punishing feedback better than adolescents in their estimation of the current state of the contingencies. On the basis of these results, we argue that adolescents made decisions with less certainty when compared with adults and speculate that adolescents acquired a less accurate knowledge of their current state, that is, of being correct or wrong.

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