Motivational neural circuits underlying reinforcement learning

Nat Neurosci. 2017 Mar 29;20(4):505-512. doi: 10.1038/nn.4506.


Reinforcement learning (RL) is the behavioral process of learning the values of actions and objects. Most models of RL assume that the dopaminergic prediction error signal drives plasticity in frontal-striatal circuits. The striatum then encodes value representations that drive decision processes. However, the amygdala has also been shown to play an important role in forming Pavlovian stimulus-outcome associations. These Pavlovian associations can drive motivated behavior via the amygdala projections to the ventral striatum or the ventral tegmental area. The amygdala may, therefore, play a central role in RL. Here we compare the contributions of the amygdala and the striatum to RL and show that both the amygdala and striatum learn and represent expected values in RL tasks. Furthermore, value representations in the striatum may be inherited, to some extent, from the amygdala. The striatum may, therefore, play less of a primary role in learning stimulus-outcome associations in RL than previously suggested.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Amygdala
  • Animals
  • Corpus Striatum
  • Decision Making
  • Humans
  • Motivation / physiology*
  • Nerve Net / physiology*
  • Reinforcement, Psychology*