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J Neurosci. 2011 Mar 30;31(13):4955-61. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4845-10.2011.

Task-load-dependent activation of dopaminergic midbrain areas in the absence of reward.

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Department of Experimental Psychology, Ghent University, 9000 Ghent, Belgium.


Dopamine release in cortical and subcortical structures plays a central role in reward-related neural processes. Within this context, dopaminergic inputs are commonly assumed to play an activating role, facilitating behavioral and cognitive operations necessary to obtain a prospective reward. Here, we provide evidence from human fMRI that this activating role can also be mediated by task-demand-related processes and thus extends beyond situations that only entail extrinsic motivating factors. Using a visual discrimination task in which varying levels of task demands were precued, we found enhanced hemodynamic activity in the substantia nigra (SN) for high task demands in the absence of reward or similar extrinsic motivating factors. This observation thus indicates that the SN can also be activated in an endogenous fashion. In parallel to its role in reward-related processes, reward-independent activation likely serves to recruit the processing resources needed to meet enhanced task demands. Simultaneously, activity in a wide network of cortical and subcortical control regions was enhanced in response to high task demands, whereas areas of the default-mode network were deactivated more strongly. The present observations suggest that the SN represents a core node within a broader neural network that adjusts the amount of available neural and behavioral resources to changing situational opportunities and task requirements, which is often driven by extrinsic factors but can also be controlled endogenously.

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