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Biol Psychiatry Cogn Neurosci Neuroimaging. 2019 Feb;4(2):190-199. doi: 10.1016/j.bpsc.2018.09.015. Epub 2018 Oct 9.

The Neurobiology of Personal Control During Reward Learning and Its Relationship to Mood.

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Division of Psychiatry, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, United Kingdom. Electronic address:
Aberdeen Biomedical Imaging Centre, Institute of Medical Sciences, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, United Kingdom.
Division of Psychiatry, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, United Kingdom.
Behaviorial Neuroscience, School of Medicine, University of Dundee, Dundee, United Kingdom.
Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology, Department of Psychology, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, United Kingdom.
Department of Psychology, Rutgers University, Newark, New Jersey.



The majority of reward learning neuroimaging studies have not focused on the motivational aspects of behavior, such as the inherent value placed on choice itself. The experience and affective value of personal control may have particular relevance for psychiatric disorders, including depression.


We adapted a functional magnetic resonance imaging reward task that probed the value placed on exerting control over one's decisions, termed choice value, in 122 healthy participants. We examined activation associated with choice value; personally chosen versus passively received rewards; and reinforcement learning metrics, such as prediction error. Relationships were tested between measures of motivational orientation (categorized as autonomy, control, and impersonal) and subclinical depressive symptoms.


Anticipating personal choice activated left insula, cingulate, right inferior frontal cortex, and ventral striatum (pfamilywise error-corrected < .05). Ventral striatal activations to choice were diminished in participants with subclinical depressive symptoms. Personally chosen rewards were associated with greater activation of the insula and inferior frontal gyrus, cingulate cortex, hippocampus, thalamus, and substantia nigra compared with rewards that were passively received. In participants who felt they had little control over their own behavior (impersonal orientation), prediction error signals in nucleus accumbens were stronger during passive trials.


Previous findings regarding personal choice have been verified and advanced through the use of both reinforcement learning models and correlations with psychopathology. Personal choice has an impact on the extended reward network, potentially allowing these clinically important areas to be addressed in ways more relevant to personality styles, self-esteem, and symptoms such as motivational anhedonia.


Depression; Imaging; Locus of causality; Perceived control; Reward learning; Value of choice

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