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J Neurosci. 2011 Mar 16;31(11):4178-87. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4652-10.2011.

Surprise signals in anterior cingulate cortex: neuronal encoding of unsigned reward prediction errors driving adjustment in behavior.

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Department of Neurobiology, Duke University School of Medicine, Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina 27710, USA.


In attentional models of learning, associations between actions and subsequent rewards are stronger when outcomes are surprising, regardless of their valence. Despite the behavioral evidence that surprising outcomes drive learning, neural correlates of unsigned reward prediction errors remain elusive. Here we show that in a probabilistic choice task, trial-to-trial variations in preference track outcome surprisingness. Concordant with this behavioral pattern, responses of neurons in macaque (Macaca mulatta) dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) to both large and small rewards were enhanced when the outcome was surprising. Moreover, when, on some trials, probabilities were hidden, neuronal responses to rewards were reduced, consistent with the idea that the absence of clear expectations diminishes surprise. These patterns are inconsistent with the idea that dACC neurons track signed errors in reward prediction, as dopamine neurons do. Our results also indicate that dACC neurons do not signal conflict. In the context of other studies of dACC function, these results suggest a link between reward-related modulations in dACC activity and attention and motor control processes involved in behavioral adjustment. More speculatively, these data point to a harmonious integration between reward and learning accounts of ACC function on one hand, and attention and cognitive control accounts on the other.

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