Neuromodulation of reward-based learning and decision making in human aging

Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2011 Oct;1235:1-17. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2011.06230.x.


In this paper, we review the current literature to highlight relations between age-associated declines in dopaminergic and serotonergic neuromodulation and adult age differences in adaptive goal-directed behavior. Specifically, we focus on evidence suggesting that deficits in neuromodulation contribute to older adults' behavioral disadvantages in learning and decision making. These deficits are particularly pronounced when reward information is uncertain or the task context requires flexible adaptations to changing stimulus-reward contingencies. Moreover, emerging evidence points to age-related differences in the sensitivity to rewarding and aversive outcomes during learning and decision making if the acquisition of behavior critically depends on outcome processing. These age-related asymmetries in outcome valuation may be explained by age differences in the interplay of dopaminergic and serotonergic neuromodulation. This hypothesis is based on recent neurocomputational and psychopharmacological approaches, which suggest that dopamine and serotonin serve opponent roles in regulating the balance between approach behavior and inhibitory control. Studying adaptive regulation of behavior across the adult life span may shed new light on how the aging brain changes functionally in response to its diminishing resources.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Brain / anatomy & histology
  • Brain / physiology
  • Computer Simulation
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Dopamine / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Models, Neurological
  • Nerve Net / anatomy & histology
  • Nerve Net / physiology
  • Neurotransmitter Agents / metabolism*
  • Reward*
  • Serotonin / metabolism


  • Neurotransmitter Agents
  • Serotonin
  • Dopamine