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Cereb Cortex. 2012 Nov;22(11):2575-86. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhr332. Epub 2011 Nov 25.

Frontal theta reflects uncertainty and unexpectedness during exploration and exploitation.

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Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences, Brown University, Providence, RI 02912, USA.


In order to understand the exploitation/exploration trade-off in reinforcement learning, previous theoretical and empirical accounts have suggested that increased uncertainty may precede the decision to explore an alternative option. To date, the neural mechanisms that support the strategic application of uncertainty-driven exploration remain underspecified. In this study, electroencephalography (EEG) was used to assess trial-to-trial dynamics relevant to exploration and exploitation. Theta-band activities over middle and lateral frontal areas have previously been implicated in EEG studies of reinforcement learning and strategic control. It was hypothesized that these areas may interact during top-down strategic behavioral control involved in exploratory choices. Here, we used a dynamic reward-learning task and an associated mathematical model that predicted individual response times. This reinforcement-learning model generated value-based prediction errors and trial-by-trial estimates of exploration as a function of uncertainty. Mid-frontal theta power correlated with unsigned prediction error, although negative prediction errors had greater power overall. Trial-to-trial variations in response-locked frontal theta were linearly related to relative uncertainty and were larger in individuals who used uncertainty to guide exploration. This finding suggests that theta-band activities reflect prefrontal-directed strategic control during exploratory choices.

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