Calculating utility: preclinical evidence for cost-benefit analysis by mesolimbic dopamine

Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2007 Apr;191(3):483-95. doi: 10.1007/s00213-006-0626-6. Epub 2006 Nov 22.


Rationale: Throughout our lives we constantly assess the costs and benefits of the possible future outcomes of our actions and use this information to guide behavior. There is accumulating evidence that dopamine contributes to a fundamental component of this computation-how rewards are compared with the costs incurred when obtaining them.

Objective: We review the evidence for dopamine's role in cost-benefit decision making and outline a simple mathematical framework in which to represent the interactions between rewards, costs, behavioral state and dopamine.

Conclusions: Dopamine's effects on cost-benefit decision making can be modeled using simple utility-function curves. This approach provides a useful framework for modeling existing data and generating experimental hypotheses that can be objectively and quantitatively tested by observing choice behavior without the necessity to account for subjective psychological states such as pleasure or desire. We suggest that dopamine plays a key role in overcoming response costs and enabling high-effort behaviors. A particularly important anatomical site of this action is the core of the nucleus accumbens. Here, dopamine is able to modulate activity originating from the frontal cortical systems that also assess costs and rewards. Internal deprivation states (e.g., hunger and thirst) also help to energize goal-seeking behaviors, probably in part by their rich influence on dopamine, which can in turn modify decision making policies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Choice Behavior
  • Dopamine / metabolism*
  • Goals
  • Humans
  • Limbic System / metabolism*
  • Models, Psychological
  • Motivation*
  • Neurotransmitter Agents / metabolism*
  • Prefrontal Cortex / metabolism
  • Reward*


  • Neurotransmitter Agents
  • Dopamine