The cerebellum: a neural system for the study of reinforcement learning

Front Behav Neurosci. 2011 Mar 3:5:8. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2011.00008. eCollection 2011.


In its strictest application, the term "reinforcement learning" refers to a computational approach to learning in which an agent (often a machine) interacts with a mutable environment to maximize reward through trial and error. The approach borrows essentials from several fields, most notably Computer Science, Behavioral Neuroscience, and Psychology. At the most basic level, a neural system capable of mediating reinforcement learning must be able to acquire sensory information about the external environment and internal milieu (either directly or through connectivities with other brain regions), must be able to select a behavior to be executed, and must be capable of providing evaluative feedback about the success of that behavior. Given that Psychology informs us that reinforcers, both positive and negative, are stimuli or consequences that increase the probability that the immediately antecedent behavior will be repeated and that reinforcer strength or viability is modulated by the organism's past experience with the reinforcer, its affect, and even the state of its muscles (e.g., eyes open or closed); it is the case that any neural system that supports reinforcement learning must also be sensitive to these same considerations. Once learning is established, such a neural system must finally be able to maintain continued response expression and prevent response drift. In this report, we examine both historical and recent evidence that the cerebellum satisfies all of these requirements. While we report evidence from a variety of learning paradigms, the majority of our discussion will focus on classical conditioning of the rabbit eye blink response as an ideal model system for the study of reinforcement and reinforcement learning.

Keywords: classical conditioning; inferior olive; reinforcer; reward.