Nucleus accumbens mediates relative motivation for rewards in the absence of choice

Front Hum Neurosci. 2011 Aug 30;5:87. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2011.00087. eCollection 2011.


To dissociate a choice from its antecedent neural states, motivation associated with the expected outcome must be captured in the absence of choice. Yet, the neural mechanisms that mediate behavioral idiosyncrasies in motivation, particularly with regard to complex economic preferences, are rarely examined in situations without overt decisions. We employed functional magnetic resonance imaging in a large sample of participants while they anticipated earning rewards from two different modalities: monetary and candy rewards. An index for relative motivation toward different reward types was constructed using reaction times to the target for earning rewards. Activation in the nucleus accumbens (NAcc) and anterior insula (aINS) predicted individual variation in relative motivation between our reward modalities. NAcc activation, however, mediated the effects of aINS, indicating the NAcc is the likely source of this relative weighting. These results demonstrate that neural idiosyncrasies in reward efficacy exist even in the absence of explicit choices, and extend the role of NAcc as a critical brain region for such choice-free motivation.

Keywords: anticipation; fMRI; insula; motivation; nucleus accumbens; reward.