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J Neurosci. 2018 Aug 8;38(32):7143-7157. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3336-17.2018. Epub 2018 Jun 29.

Neural Computations Underlying Causal Structure Learning.

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Department of Psychology and Center for Brain Science, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138
Department of Psychology and Center for Brain Science, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138.


Behavioral evidence suggests that beliefs about causal structure constrain associative learning, determining which stimuli can enter into association, as well as the functional form of that association. Bayesian learning theory provides one mechanism by which structural beliefs can be acquired from experience, but the neural basis of this mechanism is poorly understood. We studied this question with a combination of behavioral, computational, and neuroimaging techniques. Male and female human subjects learned to predict an outcome based on cue and context stimuli while being scanned using fMRI. Using a model-based analysis of the fMRI data, we show that structure learning signals are encoded in posterior parietal cortex, lateral prefrontal cortex, and the frontal pole. These structure learning signals are distinct from associative learning signals. Moreover, representational similarity analysis and information mapping revealed that the multivariate patterns of activity in posterior parietal cortex and anterior insula encode the full posterior distribution over causal structures. Variability in the encoding of the posterior across subjects predicted variability in their subsequent behavioral performance. These results provide evidence for a neural architecture in which structure learning guides the formation of associations.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Animals are able to infer the hidden structure behind causal relations between stimuli in the environment, allowing them to generalize this knowledge to stimuli they have never experienced before. A recently published computational model based on this idea provided a parsimonious account of a wide range of phenomena reported in the animal learning literature, suggesting a dedicated neural mechanism for learning this hidden structure. Here, we validate this model by measuring brain activity during a task that involves both structure learning and associative learning. We show that a distinct network of regions supports structure learning and that the neural signal corresponding to beliefs about structure predicts future behavioral performance.


Bayesian modeling; associative learning; causal reasoning; context; fMRI; structure learning

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