Processing of primary and secondary rewards: a quantitative meta-analysis and review of human functional neuroimaging studies

Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2013 May;37(4):681-96. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2013.02.002. Epub 2013 Feb 13.


One fundamental question concerning brain reward mechanisms is to determine how reward-related activity is influenced by the nature of rewards. Here, we review the neuroimaging literature and explicitly assess to what extent the representations of primary and secondary rewards overlap in the human brain. To achieve this goal, we performed an activation likelihood estimation (ALE) meta-analysis of 87 studies (1452 subjects) comparing the brain responses to monetary, erotic and food reward outcomes. Those three rewards robustly engaged a common brain network including the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, ventral striatum, amygdala, anterior insula and mediodorsal thalamus, although with some variations in the intensity and location of peak activity. Money-specific responses were further observed in the most anterior portion of the orbitofrontal cortex, supporting the idea that abstract secondary rewards are represented in evolutionary more recent brain regions. In contrast, food and erotic (i.e. primary) rewards were more strongly represented in the anterior insula, while erotic stimuli elicited particularly robust responses in the amygdala. Together, these results indicate that the computation of experienced reward value does not only recruit a core "reward system" but also reward type-dependent brain structures.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Amygdala / anatomy & histology
  • Amygdala / physiology
  • Animals
  • Brain / anatomy & histology
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Cerebral Cortex / anatomy & histology
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology
  • Corpus Striatum / anatomy & histology
  • Corpus Striatum / physiology
  • Humans
  • Hypothalamus / physiology
  • Neuroimaging*
  • Prefrontal Cortex / anatomy & histology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology
  • Reward*
  • Thalamus / physiology
  • Visual Cortex / physiology