How is reward processed in the brain has been of great interest to neuroscience because of the relevance of pleasure (or lack of it) to a plethora of disorders, from addiction to depression. Among the cortical areas (that is the surface of the brain), the most involved structure in reward processing is the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC). Most of the knowledge about the human OFC comes from patients with lesions or from imaging studies. Now, for the first time, we have insights about how and when the OFC processes reward from a group of scientists that studied it up close and personal, by recording directly from those neurons in the living, awake, behaving human.
Li et al. (2016) gained access to six patients who had implanted electrodes to monitor their brain activity before they went into surgery for epilepsy. All patients’ epilepsy foci were elsewhere in the brain, so the authors figured the overall function of OFC is relatively intact.
While recording directly form the OFC the patients performed a probabilistic monetary reward task: on a screen, 5 visually different slot machine appeared and each machine had a different probability of winning 20 Euros (0% chances, 25%, 50%, 75% and 100%), fact that has not been told to the patients. The patients were asked to press a button if a particular slot machine is more likely to give money. Then they would use the slot machine and the outcome (win 20 or 0 Euros) would appear on the screen. The patients figured out quickly which slot machine is which, meaning they ‘guessed’ correctly the probability of being rewarded or not after only 1 to 4 trails (generally, learning is defined in behavioral studies as > 80% correct responses). The researchers also timed the patients during every part of the task.
Not surprisingly, the subjects spent more time deciding whether or not the 50% chance of winning slot machine was a winner or not than in all other 4 possibilities. In other words, the more riskier the choice, the slower the time reaction to make that choice.
The design of the task allowed the researchers to observe three 3 phases which were linked with 3 different signals in the OFC:
1) the expected value phase where the subjects saw the slot machine and made their judgement. The corresponding signal showed an increase in the neurons’ firing about 400 ms after the slot machine appeared on the screen in moth medial and lateral OFC.
2) the risk or uncertainty phase, when subjects where waiting for the slot machine to stop its spinners and show whether they won or not (1000-1500 ms). They called the risk phase because both medial and lateral OFC had the higher responses when there was presented the riskiest probability, i.e. 50% chance. Unexpectedly, the OFC did not distinguish between the winning and the non-wining outcomes at this phase.
3) the experienced value or outcome phase when the subjects found out whether they won or not. Only the lateral OFC responded during this phase, that is immediately upon finding if the action was rewarded or not.
For the professional interested in precise anatomy, the article provides a nicely detailed diagram with the locations of the electrodes in Fig. 6.
The paper is also covered for the neuroscientists’ interest (that is, is full of scientific jargon) by Kringelbach in the same Journal, a prominent neuroscientist mostly known for his work in affective neuroscience and OFC. One of the reasons I also covered this paper is that both its full text and Kringelbach’s commentary are behind a paywall, so I am giving you a preview of the paper in case you don’t have access to it.
Reference: Li Y, Vanni-Mercier G, Isnard J, Mauguière F & Dreher J-C (1 Apr 2016, Epub 25 Jan 2016). The neural dynamics of reward value and risk coding in the human orbitofrontal cortex. Brain, 139(4):1295-1309. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/brain/awv409. Article
By Neuronicus, 25 March 2016