Neural determinants of human goal-directed vs. habitual action control and their relation to trait motivation

Sci Rep. 2017 Jul 20;7(1):6002. doi: 10.1038/s41598-017-06284-y.


Instrumental learning is mediated by goal-directed and habit systems in the brain. While rodent studies implicate distinct prefrontal/striatal regions in goal-directed and habit learning, neural systems underpinning these two processes in humans remain poorly understood. Here, using a validated discrimination learning task that distinguishes goal-directed learning from habit learning in 72 subjects in fMRI, we investigated the corticostriatal correlates of goal-directed learning and tested whether brain activation during learning is associated with trait motivation and behavioral performance in the post-learning test phase. Participants showed enhanced activation in medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortices during goal-directed action selection in the training phase, whereas habitual action selection activated bilateral insula, bilateral dorsal caudate and left precentral gyrus. In addition, early phase of learning was associated with increased activation in the frontoparietal control network and dorsal striatum, whereas default mode regions depicted increased activation in the late phase. Finally, avoidance motivation scores measured by Behavioral Inhibition/Activation System (BIS/BAS) correlated with accuracy during goal-directed learning and showed a nominally significant correlation with activation in dorsomedial prefrontal cortex during goal-directed acquisition of stimuli. These findings reveal the temporal dynamics of instrumental behavior and suggest that avoidance motivation predicts performance and brain activity during goal-directed learning.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Female
  • Goals*
  • Habits*
  • Humans
  • Linear Models
  • Male
  • Motivation*