Anterior cingulate neurons in the rat map anticipated effort and reward to their associated action sequences

J Neurophysiol. 2012 May;107(9):2393-407. doi: 10.1152/jn.01012.2011. Epub 2012 Feb 8.


Goal-directed behaviors require the consideration and expenditure of physical effort. The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) appears to play an important role in evaluating effort and reward and in organizing goal-directed actions. Despite agreement regarding the involvement of the ACC in these processes, the way in which effort-, reward-, and motor-related information is registered by networks of ACC neurons is poorly understood. To contrast ACC responses to effort, reward, and motor behaviors, we trained rats on a reversal task in which the selected paths on a track determined the level of effort or reward. Effort was presented in the form of an obstacle that was climbed to obtain reward. We used single-unit recordings to identify neural correlates of effort- and reward-guided behaviors. During periods of outcome anticipation, 52% of recorded ACC neurons responded to the specific route taken to the reward while 21% responded prospectively to effort and 12% responded prospectively to reward. In addition, effort- and reward-selective neurons typically responded to the route, suggesting that these cells integrated motor-related activity with expectations of future outcomes. Furthermore, the activity of ACC neurons did not discriminate between choice and forced trials or respond to a more generalized measure of outcome value. Nearly all neural responses to effort and reward occurred after path selection and were restricted to discrete temporal/spatial stages of the task. Together, these findings support a role for the ACC in integrating route-specific actions, effort, and reward in the service of sustaining discrete movements through an effortful series of goal-directed actions.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anticipation, Psychological / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping / methods*
  • Gyrus Cinguli / physiology*
  • Male
  • Nerve Net / physiology*
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Prospective Studies
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Reward*