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Neuroimage. 2012 Jul 2;61(3):723-9. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2012.03.060. Epub 2012 Mar 29.

Being right is its own reward: load and performance related ventral striatum activation to correct responses during a working memory task in youth.

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Department of Psychiatry, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA.


The ventral striatum (VS) is a critical brain region for reinforcement learning and motivation. Intrinsically motivated subjects performing challenging cognitive tasks engage reinforcement circuitry including VS even in the absence of external feedback or incentives. However, little is known about how such VS responses develop with age, relate to task performance, and are influenced by task difficulty. Here we used fMRI to examine VS activation to correct and incorrect responses during a standard n-back working memory task in a large sample (n=304) of healthy children, adolescents and young adults aged 8-22. We found that bilateral VS activates more strongly to correct than incorrect responses, and that the VS response scales with the difficulty of the working memory task. Furthermore, VS response was correlated with discrimination performance during the task, and the magnitude of VS response peaked in mid-adolescence. These findings provide evidence for scalable intrinsic reinforcement signals during standard cognitive tasks, and suggest a novel link between motivation and cognition during adolescent development.

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