Determining a role for ventromedial prefrontal cortex in encoding action-based value signals during reward-related decision making

Cereb Cortex. 2009 Feb;19(2):483-95. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhn098. Epub 2008 Jun 11.


Considerable evidence has emerged to implicate ventromedial prefrontal cortex in encoding expectations of future reward during value-based decision making. However, the nature of the learned associations upon which such representations depend is much less clear. Here, we aimed to determine whether expected reward representations in this region could be driven by action-outcome associations, rather than being dependent on the associative value assigned to particular discriminative stimuli. Subjects were scanned with functional magnetic resonance imaging while performing 2 variants of a simple reward-related decision task. In one version, subjects made choices between 2 different physical motor responses in the absence of discriminative stimuli, whereas in the other version, subjects chose between 2 different stimuli that were randomly assigned to different responses on a trial-by-trial basis. Using an extension of a reinforcement learning algorithm, we found activity in ventromedial prefrontal cortex tracked expected future reward during the action-based task as well as during the stimulus-based task, indicating that value representations in this region can be driven by action-outcome associations. These findings suggest that ventromedial prefrontal cortex may play a role in encoding the value of chosen actions irrespective of whether those actions denote physical motor responses or more abstract decision options.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Cues
  • Data Interpretation, Statistical
  • Decision Making*
  • Discrimination, Psychological / physiology
  • Female
  • Functional Laterality / physiology
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Learning / physiology
  • Logistic Models
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Models, Neurological
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology
  • Reversal Learning / physiology
  • Reward
  • Young Adult


  • Oxygen