Expectancy, ambiguity, and behavioral flexibility: separable and complementary roles of the orbital frontal cortex and amygdala in processing reward expectancies

J Cogn Neurosci. 2012 Feb;24(2):351-66. doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_00155. Epub 2011 Oct 17.


Appetitive goal-directed behavior can be associated with a cue-triggered expectancy that it will lead to a particular reward, a process thought to depend on the OFC and basolateral amygdala complex. We developed a biologically informed neural network model of this system to investigate the separable and complementary roles of these areas as the main components of a flexible expectancy system. These areas of interest are part of a neural network with additional subcortical areas, including the central nucleus of amygdala, ventral (limbic) and dorsomedial (associative) striatum. Our simulations are consistent with the view that the amygdala maintains Pavlovian associations through incremental updating of synaptic strength and that the OFC supports flexibility by maintaining an activation-based working memory of the recent reward history. Our model provides a mechanistic explanation for electrophysiological evidence that cue-related firing in OFC neurons is nonselectively early after a contingency change and why this nonselective firing is critical for promoting plasticity in the amygdala. This ambiguous activation results from the simultaneous maintenance of recent outcomes and obsolete Pavlovian contingencies in working memory. Furthermore, at the beginning of reversal, the OFC is critical for supporting responses that are no longer inappropriate. This result is inconsistent with an exclusive inhibitory account of OFC function.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Amygdala / physiology*
  • Computer Simulation
  • Conditioning, Psychological / physiology
  • Frontal Lobe / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Nerve Net / physiology*
  • Neural Pathways / physiology
  • Reward*