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Neural and Behavioral Investigations of Social Reward Processing


Lin, Alice (2012) Neural and Behavioral Investigations of Social Reward Processing. Dissertation (Ph.D.), California Institute of Technology. doi:10.7907/0XT9-2494.


Despite an extensive literature on the neural substrates of reward, relatively little is known about how social interactions modify decision-making. Here I present three experiments that examine the neural basis of social reward processing both in neurotypicals and individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a neuropsychiatric syndrome associated with social cognition impairments. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), I recorded brain activity during a probabilistic reward learning task with either social (smiling/frowning faces) or monetary (gaining/losing money) rewards. I found substantial overlap in the neural circuitry associated with social and non-social reward processing, suggesting that social rewards are processed similarly to other types of rewards. In contrast, individuals with ASD showed behavioral impairments in social reward processing, both in probabilistic reward learning and in an ecologically valid charitable donation task. Exploratory neuroimaging in ASD showed hypoactivation of key reward areas during decision-making. Taken together, these findings support the idea of a “common neural currency” in decision-making but also suggest the construction of accurate social reward value signals relies on recruitment of additional regions known to process social information.

Item Type:Thesis (Dissertation (Ph.D.))
Subject Keywords:social rewards, autism, decision making, learning, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, ventral striatum
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):
  • Rangel, Antonio (advisor)
  • Adolphs, Ralph (co-advisor)
Thesis Committee:
  • O'Doherty, John P. (chair)
  • Bossaerts, Peter L.
  • Shimojo, Shinsuke
  • Rangel, Antonio
  • Adolphs, Ralph
Defense Date:26 March 2012
Non-Caltech Author Email:alice (AT)
Funding AgencyGrant Number
Record Number:CaltechTHESIS:06052012-163338072
Persistent URL:
Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:7137
Deposited By: Alice Lin
Deposited On:07 Jun 2012 20:10
Last Modified:03 Oct 2019 23:56

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