Prefrontal and striatal dopaminergic genes predict individual differences in exploration and exploitation

Nat Neurosci. 2009 Aug;12(8):1062-8. doi: 10.1038/nn.2342. Epub 2009 Jul 20.


The basal ganglia support learning to exploit decisions that have yielded positive outcomes in the past. In contrast, limited evidence implicates the prefrontal cortex in the process of making strategic exploratory decisions when the magnitude of potential outcomes is unknown. Here we examine neurogenetic contributions to individual differences in these distinct aspects of motivated human behavior, using a temporal decision-making task and computational analysis. We show that two genes controlling striatal dopamine function, DARPP-32 (also called PPP1R1B) and DRD2, are associated with exploitative learning to adjust response times incrementally as a function of positive and negative decision outcomes. In contrast, a gene primarily controlling prefrontal dopamine function (COMT) is associated with a particular type of 'directed exploration', in which exploratory decisions are made in proportion to Bayesian uncertainty about whether other choices might produce outcomes that are better than the status quo. Quantitative model fits reveal that genetic factors modulate independent parameters of a reinforcement learning system.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Algorithms
  • Bayes Theorem
  • Catechol O-Methyltransferase / genetics*
  • Computer Simulation
  • Corpus Striatum / metabolism*
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Dopamine / metabolism*
  • Dopamine and cAMP-Regulated Phosphoprotein 32 / genetics
  • Exploratory Behavior / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology
  • Male
  • Motivation
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Prefrontal Cortex / metabolism*
  • Reinforcement, Psychology
  • Time Perception
  • Young Adult


  • Dopamine and cAMP-Regulated Phosphoprotein 32
  • PPP1R1B protein, human
  • Catechol O-Methyltransferase
  • Dopamine