Dopaminergic and prefrontal contributions to reward-based learning and outcome monitoring during child development and aging

Dev Psychol. 2012 May;48(3):862-74. doi: 10.1037/a0027342. Epub 2012 Mar 5.


In many instances, children and older adults show similar difficulties in reward-based learning and outcome monitoring. These impairments are most pronounced in situations in which reward is uncertain (e.g., probabilistic reward schedules) and if outcome information is ambiguous (e.g., the relative value of outcomes has to be learned). Furthermore, whereas children show a greater sensitivity to external outcome information, older adults focus less on a rapid differentiation of rewarding outcomes. In this article, we review evidence for the idea that these phenomenologically similar impairments in learning and outcome monitoring in children and older adults can be attributed to deficits in different underlying neurophysiological mechanisms. We propose that in older adults learning impairments are the result of reduced dopaminergic projections to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which lead to less differentiated representations of reward value. In contrast, in children, impairments in learning can be primarily attributed to deficits in executive control, which may be due to a protracted development of the dorsal medial and lateral prefrontal cortices. We think that this framework maps well onto recent neurophysiological models of reward processing and is plausible from a broader developmental perspective.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aging / physiology*
  • Child
  • Child Development / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Learning / classification*
  • Learning / physiology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Reward*