Using fMRI to study reward processing in humans: past, present, and future

J Neurophysiol. 2016 Mar;115(3):1664-78. doi: 10.1152/jn.00333.2015. Epub 2016 Jan 6.


Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is a noninvasive tool used to probe cognitive and affective processes. Although fMRI provides indirect measures of neural activity, the advent of fMRI has allowed for1) the corroboration of significant animal findings in the human brain, and2) the expansion of models to include more common human attributes that inform behavior. In this review, we briefly consider the neural basis of the blood oxygenation level dependent signal to set up a discussion of how fMRI studies have applied it in examining cognitive models in humans and the promise of using fMRI to advance such models. Specifically, we illustrate the contribution that fMRI has made to the study of reward processing, focusing on the role of the striatum in encoding reward-related learning signals that drive anticipatory and consummatory behaviors. For instance, we discuss how fMRI can be used to link neural signals (e.g., striatal responses to rewards) to individual differences in behavior and traits. While this functional segregation approach has been constructive to our understanding of reward-related functions, many fMRI studies have also benefitted from a functional integration approach that takes into account how interconnected regions (e.g., corticostriatal circuits) contribute to reward processing. We contend that future work using fMRI will profit from using a multimodal approach, such as combining fMRI with noninvasive brain stimulation tools (e.g., transcranial electrical stimulation), that can identify causal mechanisms underlying reward processing. Consequently, advancements in implementing fMRI will promise new translational opportunities to inform our understanding of psychopathologies.

Keywords: brain stimulation; corticostriatal projections; nucleus accumbens; reinforcement; striatum.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping / methods*
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods*
  • Reward*