Neural estimates of imagined outcomes in the orbitofrontal cortex drive behavior and learning

Neuron. 2013 Oct 16;80(2):507-18. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2013.08.008.


Imagination, defined as the ability to interpret reality in ways that diverge from past experience, is fundamental to adaptive behavior. This can be seen at a simple level in our capacity to predict novel outcomes in new situations. The ability to anticipate outcomes never before received can also influence learning if those imagined outcomes are not received. The orbitofrontal cortex is a key candidate for where the process of imagining likely outcomes occurs; however, its precise role in generating these estimates and applying them to learning remain open questions. Here we address these questions by showing that single-unit activity in the orbitofrontal cortex reflects novel outcome estimates. The strength of these neural correlates predicted both behavior and learning, learning that was abolished by temporally specific inhibition of orbitofrontal neurons. These results are consistent with the proposal that the orbitofrontal cortex is critical for integrating information to imagine future outcomes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials / physiology
  • Animals
  • Conditioning, Classical / physiology*
  • Cues
  • Extinction, Psychological / physiology
  • Imagination / physiology*
  • Male
  • Neural Inhibition / physiology
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Rats