Neural basis of reinforcement learning and decision making

Annu Rev Neurosci. 2012;35:287-308. doi: 10.1146/annurev-neuro-062111-150512. Epub 2012 Mar 29.


Reinforcement learning is an adaptive process in which an animal utilizes its previous experience to improve the outcomes of future choices. Computational theories of reinforcement learning play a central role in the newly emerging areas of neuroeconomics and decision neuroscience. In this framework, actions are chosen according to their value functions, which describe how much future reward is expected from each action. Value functions can be adjusted not only through reward and penalty, but also by the animal's knowledge of its current environment. Studies have revealed that a large proportion of the brain is involved in representing and updating value functions and using them to choose an action. However, how the nature of a behavioral task affects the neural mechanisms of reinforcement learning remains incompletely understood. Future studies should uncover the principles by which different computational elements of reinforcement learning are dynamically coordinated across the entire brain.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain Mapping / psychology*
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Economics, Behavioral
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Models, Neurological
  • Models, Psychological
  • Neural Networks, Computer
  • Reinforcement, Psychology*