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J Neurosci. 2012 May 23;32(21):7311-5. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0027-12.2012.

Single-neuron responses in the human nucleus accumbens during a financial decision-making task.

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Nayef Al-Rodhan Laboratories, Department of Neurosurgery, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts 02114, USA.


Linking values to actions and evaluating expectations relative to outcomes are both central to reinforcement learning and are thought to underlie financial decision-making. However, neurophysiology studies of these processes in humans remain limited. Here, we recorded the activity of single human nucleus accumbens neurons while subjects performed a gambling task. We show that the nucleus accumbens encodes two signals related to subject behavior. First, we find that under relatively predictable conditions, single neuronal activity predicts future financial decisions on a trial-by-trial basis. Interestingly, we show that this activity continues to predict decisions even under conditions of uncertainty (e.g., when the probability of winning or losing is 50/50 and no particular financial choice predicts a rewarding outcome). Furthermore, we find that this activity occurs, on average, 2 s before the subjects physically manifest their decision. Second, we find that the nucleus accumbens encodes the difference between expected and realized outcomes, consistent with a prediction error signal. We show this activity occurs immediately after the subject has realized the outcome of the trial and is present on both the individual and population neuron levels. These results provide human single neuronal evidence that the nucleus accumbens is integral in making financial decisions.

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