Human Substantia Nigra Neurons Encode Unexpected Financial Rewards

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Science  13 Mar 2009:
Vol. 323, Issue 5920, pp. 1496-1499
DOI: 10.1126/science.1167342

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The brain's sensitivity to unexpected outcomes plays a fundamental role in an organism's ability to adapt and learn new behaviors. Emerging research suggests that midbrain dopaminergic neurons encode these unexpected outcomes. We used microelectrode recordings during deep brain stimulation surgery to study neuronal activity in the human substantia nigra (SN) while patients with Parkinson's disease engaged in a probabilistic learning task motivated by virtual financial rewards. Based on a model of the participants' expected reward, we divided trial outcomes into expected and unexpected gains and losses. SN neurons exhibited significantly higher firing rates after unexpected gains than unexpected losses. No such differences were observed after expected gains and losses. This result provides critical support for the hypothesized role of the SN in human reinforcement learning.

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