An animal's ability to assess the value of their behaviors to minimize energy use while maximizing goal achievement is critical to its survival. The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) has been previously shown to play a critical role in this behavioral optimization process, especially when animals are faced with effortful behaviors. In the present study, we designed a novel task to investigate the role of the ACC in evaluating behaviors that varied in effort but all resulted in the same outcome. We recorded single unit activity from the ACC as rats ran back and forth in a shuttle box that could be tilted to different tilt angles (0, 15, and 25°) to manipulate effort. Overall, a majority of ACC neurons showed selective firing to specific effort conditions. During effort expenditure, ACC units showed a consistent firing rate bias toward the downhill route compared with the more difficult uphill route, regardless of the tilt angle of the apparatus. Once rats completed a run and received their fixed reward, ACC units also showed a clear firing rate preference for the single condition with the highest relative value (25° downhill). To assess effort preferences, we used a choice version of our task and confirmed that rats prefer downhill routes to uphill routes when given the choice. Overall, these results help to elucidate the functional role of the ACC in monitoring and evaluating effortful behaviors that may then bias decision-making toward behaviors with the highest utility. NEW & NOTEWORTHY We developed a novel effort paradigm to investigate how the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) responds to behaviors with varied degrees of physical effort and how changes in effort influence the ACC's evaluation of behavioral outcomes. Our results provide evidence for a wider role of the ACC in its ability to motivate effortful behaviors and evaluate the outcome of multiple behaviors within an environment.
Keywords: anterior cingulate cortex; effort; motivation.