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Neural Mechanisms Underlying the Influence of Associative Learning on Valuation and Decision-Making in Humans


Bray, Signe Lauren (2009) Neural Mechanisms Underlying the Influence of Associative Learning on Valuation and Decision-Making in Humans. Dissertation (Ph.D.), California Institute of Technology. doi:10.7907/C5V1-RE97.


Reward is a powerful modulator of behavior. Animals and humans are endowed with the ability to learn to associate events and actions with reinforcing stimuli, and flexibly adapt their behavior. The experiments described in this thesis use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the neural mechanisms of reward learning in humans, the neural substrates by which reward associations influence behavior, and the neural plasticity that can be induced by provision of reward.

Attractive faces have been shown to be a form of visual reward, but their influence on behavior has yet to be characterized. We show that reward prediction errors in the nucleus accumbens are engaged when subjects learn associations between neutral cues and attractive faces, as has been shown with other reinforcers such as juice and money. This learning increases the subjective value of cues associated with attractive faces.

Animal studies have shown that Pavlovian cues can influence response vigor and decision-making. We present the first investigation into the neural mechanisms by which Pavlovian cues influence human decision-making. We find that activity in the ventral striatum differentiates between decisions to act in a manner compatible or incompatible with a concurrently presented Pavlovian cue.

In the next section we apply associative learning techniques to directly instrumentally condition neural activity, using reward feedback derived from fMRI images processed and analyzed in real time. This technique presents an alternative to standard bio/neurofeedback approaches and may prove useful in many clinical and research applications. We demonstrate that this method can be used to probe the causal influence of regional brain activity; specifically we test the impact of medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC) activity on affective judgments. Subjects learn to elevate mOFC activity on cue and elevated mOFC activity increases the propensity to make a positive subjective valuation judgment.

Taken together these studies advance our understanding of the functional contributions of ventral striatum and orbitofrontal cortex in influencing decision-making and valuation, and illustrate the utility of applying associative learning techniques in combination with real-time fMRI in order to evaluate the causal contribution of specific brain regions toward particular cognitive functions.

Item Type:Thesis (Dissertation (Ph.D.))
Subject Keywords:associative learning; fMRI
Degree Grantor:California Institute of Technology
Division:Engineering and Applied Science
Major Option:Computation and Neural Systems
Thesis Availability:Public (worldwide access)
Research Advisor(s):
  • O'Doherty, John P.
Thesis Committee:
  • Adolphs, Ralph (chair)
  • Rangel, Antonio
  • O'Doherty, John P.
  • Andersen, Richard A.
  • Shimojo, Shinsuke
Defense Date:2 July 2008
Record Number:CaltechETD:etd-07052008-163103
Persistent URL:
Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:2814
Deposited By: Imported from ETD-db
Deposited On:31 Jul 2008
Last Modified:26 Nov 2019 19:14

Thesis Files

PDF (thesis_sb_jul508.pdf) - Final Version
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