Primary and secondary rewards differentially modulate neural activity dynamics during working memory

PLoS One. 2010 Feb 16;5(2):e9251. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0009251.


Background: Cognitive control and working memory processes have been found to be influenced by changes in motivational state. Nevertheless, the impact of different motivational variables on behavior and brain activity remains unclear.

Methodology/principal findings: The current study examined the impact of incentive category by varying on a within-subjects basis whether performance during a working memory task was reinforced with either secondary (monetary) or primary (liquid) rewards. The temporal dynamics of motivation-cognition interactions were investigated by employing an experimental design that enabled isolation of sustained and transient effects. Performance was dramatically and equivalently enhanced in each incentive condition, whereas neural activity dynamics differed between incentive categories. The monetary reward condition was associated with a tonic activation increase in primarily right-lateralized cognitive control regions including anterior prefrontal cortex (PFC), dorsolateral PFC, and parietal cortex. In the liquid condition, the identical regions instead showed a shift in transient activation from a reactive control pattern (primary probe-based activation) during no-incentive trials to proactive control (primary cue-based activation) during rewarded trials. Additionally, liquid-specific tonic activation increases were found in subcortical regions (amygdala, dorsal striatum, nucleus accumbens), indicating an anatomical double dissociation in the locus of sustained activation.

Conclusions/significance: These different activation patterns suggest that primary and secondary rewards may produce similar behavioral changes through distinct neural mechanisms of reinforcement. Further, our results provide new evidence for the flexibility of cognitive control, in terms of the temporal dynamics of activation.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain Mapping
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Motivation / physiology
  • Parietal Lobe / anatomy & histology
  • Parietal Lobe / physiology
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual / physiology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / anatomy & histology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology*
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Reward*
  • Young Adult