Frontostriatal and Dopamine Markers of Individual Differences in Reinforcement Learning: A Multi-modal Investigation

Cereb Cortex. 2018 Dec 1;28(12):4281-4290. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhx281.


Prior studies have shown that dopamine (DA) functioning in frontostriatal circuits supports reinforcement learning (RL), as phasic DA activity in ventral striatum signals unexpected reward and may drive coordinated activity of striatal and orbitofrontal regions that support updating of action plans. However, the nature of DA functioning in RL is complex, in particular regarding the role of DA clearance in RL behavior. Here, in a multi-modal neuroimaging study with healthy adults, we took an individual differences approach to the examination of RL behavior and DA clearance mechanisms in frontostriatal learning networks. We predicted that better RL would be associated with decreased striatal DA transporter (DAT) availability and increased intrinsic functional connectivity among DA-rich frontostriatal regions. In support of these predictions, individual differences in RL behavior were related to DAT binding potential in ventral striatum and resting-state functional connectivity between ventral striatum and orbitofrontal cortex. Critically, DAT binding potential had an indirect effect on reinforcement learning behavior through frontostriatal connectivity, suggesting potential causal relationships across levels of neurocognitive functioning. These data suggest that individual differences in DA clearance and frontostriatal coordination may serve as markers for RL, and suggest directions for research on psychopathologies characterized by altered RL.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain Mapping
  • Conditioning, Operant
  • Dopamine / metabolism*
  • Dopamine Plasma Membrane Transport Proteins / metabolism*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Individuality*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Neural Pathways / metabolism
  • Positron-Emission Tomography
  • Prefrontal Cortex / metabolism*
  • Reward*
  • Ventral Striatum / metabolism*
  • Young Adult


  • Dopamine Plasma Membrane Transport Proteins
  • SLC6A3 protein, human
  • Dopamine