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Front Behav Neurosci. 2013 Oct 23;7:135. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2013.00135. eCollection 2013.

The nucleus accumbens as a nexus between values and goals in goal-directed behavior: a review and a new hypothesis.

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1
Laboratory of Computational Embodied Neuroscience, Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies, National Research Council Rome, Italy.

Abstract

Goal-directed behavior is a fundamental means by which animals can flexibly solve the challenges posed by variable external and internal conditions. Recently, the processes and brain mechanisms underlying such behavior have been extensively studied from behavioral, neuroscientific and computational perspectives. This research has highlighted the processes underlying goal-directed behavior and associated brain systems including prefrontal cortex, basal ganglia and, in particular therein, the nucleus accumbens (NAcc). This paper focusses on one particular process at the core of goal-directed behavior: how motivational value is assigned to goals on the basis of internal states and environmental stimuli, and how this supports goal selection processes. Various biological and computational accounts have been given of this problem and of related multiple neural and behavior phenomena, but we still lack an integrated hypothesis on the generation and use of value for goal selection. This paper proposes an hypothesis that aims to solve this problem and is based on this key elements: (a) amygdala and hippocampus establish the motivational value of stimuli and goals; (b) prefrontal cortex encodes various types of action outcomes; (c) NAcc integrates different sources of value, representing them in terms of a common currency with the aid of dopamine, and thereby plays a major role in selecting action outcomes within prefrontal cortex. The "goals" pursued by the organism are the outcomes selected by these processes. The hypothesis is developed in the context of a critical review of relevant biological and computational literature which offer it support. The paper shows how the hypothesis has the potential to integrate existing interpretations of motivational value and goal selection.

KEYWORDS:

amygdala; goal selection; goal-directed Behavior; hippocampus; novelty; nucleus accumbens; prefrontal cortex; value

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