Withholding a Reward-driven Action: Studies of the Rise and Fall of Motor Activation and the Effect of Cognitive Depletion

J Cogn Neurosci. 2016 Feb;28(2):237-51. doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_00893. Epub 2015 Oct 15.


Controlling an inappropriate response tendency in the face of a reward-predicting stimulus likely depends on the strength of the reward-driven activation, the strength of a putative top-down control process, and their relative timing. We developed a rewarded go/no-go paradigm to investigate such dynamics. Participants made rapid responses (on go trials) to high versus low reward-predicting stimuli and sometimes had to withhold responding (on no-go trials) in the face of the same stimuli. Behaviorally, for high versus low reward stimuli, responses were faster on go trials, and there were more errors of commission on no-go trials. We used single-pulse TMS to map out the corticospinal excitability dynamics, especially on no-go trials where control is needed. For successful no-go trials, there was an early rise in motor activation that was then sharply reduced beneath baseline. This activation-reduction pattern was more pronounced for high- versus low-reward trials and in individuals with greater motivational drive for reward. A follow-on experiment showed that, when participants were fatigued by an effortful task, they made more errors on no-go trials for high versus low reward stimuli. Together, these studies show that, when a response is inappropriate, reward-predicting stimuli induce early motor activation, followed by a top-down effortful control process (which we interpret as response suppression) that depends on the strength of the preceding activation. Our findings provide novel information about the activation-suppression dynamics during control over reward-driven actions, and they illustrate how fatigue or depletion leads to control failures in the face of reward.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiology*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Electromyography
  • Evoked Potentials, Motor
  • Female
  • Hand / physiology
  • Humans
  • Impulsive Behavior / physiology
  • Inhibition, Psychological*
  • Male
  • Motivation / physiology
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiology
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology*
  • Pyramidal Tracts / physiology*
  • Reaction Time
  • Reward*
  • Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation
  • Young Adult