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Front Neurosci. 2010 Oct 26;4:176. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2010.00176. eCollection 2010.

From bad to worse: striatal coding of the relative value of painful decisions.

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Department of Economics, Emory University Atlanta, GA, USA.


The majority of decision-related research has focused on how the brain computes decisions over outcomes that are positive in expectation. However, much less is known about how the brain integrates information when all possible outcomes in a decision are negative. To study decision-making over negative outcomes, we used fMRI along with a task in which participants had to accept or reject 50/50 lotteries that could result in more or fewer electric shocks compared to a reference amount. We hypothesized that behaviorally, participants would treat fewer shocks from the reference amount as a gain, and more shocks from the reference amount as a loss. Furthermore, we hypothesized that this would be reflected by a greater BOLD response to the prospect of fewer shocks in regions typically associated with gain, including the ventral striatum and orbitofrontal cortex. The behavioral data suggest that participants in our study viewed all outcomes as losses, despite our attempt to induce a status quo. We find that the ventral striatum showed an increase in BOLD response to better potential gambles (i.e., fewer expected shocks). This lends evidence to the idea that the ventral striatum is not solely responsible for reward processing but that it might also signal the relative value of an expected outcome or action, regardless of whether the outcome is entirely appetitive or aversive. We also find a greater response to worse gambles in regions previously associated with aversive valuation, suggesting an opposing but simultaneous valuation signal to that conveyed by the striatum.


decision; fMRI; neuroeconomics; pain; striatum; valuation

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