Dopamine restores cognitive motivation in Parkinson's disease

Brain. 2019 Mar 1;142(3):719-732. doi: 10.1093/brain/awy341.


Disorders of motivation, such as apathy, are common in Parkinson's disease, and a key feature of such disorders is a greater aversion to effort. In humans, the experience of cognitive effort is ubiquitous, and cognitive apathy has traditionally been considered distinct and separable from other subtypes. Surprisingly, however, the neurobiology of cognitive motivation is poorly understood. In particular, although dopamine has a well-characterized role in incentivizing physically effortful behaviour, a critical, unresolved issue is whether its facilitatory role generalizes to other domains. Here, we asked how dopamine modulates the willingness of patients with Parkinson's disease to invest cognitive effort in return for reward. We tested 20 patients with idiopathic Parkinson's disease across two counterbalanced sessions-ON and OFF their usual dopaminergic medication-and compared their performance to 20 healthy age-matched controls. We applied a novel task in which we manipulated cognitive effort as the number of rapid serial visual presentation streams to which participants had to attend. After training participants to ceiling performance, we then asked them to choose between a low-effort/low-reward baseline option, and a higher-effort/higher-reward offer. Computational models of choice behaviour revealed four key results. First, patients OFF medication were significantly less cognitively motivated than controls, as manifest by steeper cognitive effort discounting functions in the former group. Second, dopaminergic therapy improved this deficit, such that choices in patients ON medication were indistinguishable from controls. Third, differences in motivation were also accompanied by independent changes in the stochasticity of individuals' decisions, such that dopamine reduced the variability in choice behaviour. Finally, choices on our task correlated uniquely with the subscale of the Dimensional Apathy Scale that specifically indexes cognitive motivation, which suggests a close relationship between our laboratory measure of cognitive effort discounting and subjective reports of day-to-day cognitive apathy. Importantly, participants' choices were not confounded by temporal discounting, probability discounting, physical demand, or varying task performance. These results are the first to reveal the central role of dopamine in overcoming cognitive effort costs. They provide an insight into the computational mechanisms underlying cognitive apathy in Parkinson's disease, and demonstrate its amenability to dopaminergic therapy. More broadly, they offer important empirical support for prominent frameworks proposing a domain-general role for dopamine in value-based decision-making, and provide a critical link between dopamine and multidimensional theories of apathy.

Keywords: Parkinson’s disease; apathy; cognitive effort; decision-making; dopamine.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Apathy
  • Cognition / drug effects*
  • Computer Simulation
  • Decision Making
  • Dopamine / metabolism
  • Dopamine / pharmacology*
  • Dopamine Agents / therapeutic use
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Motivation / drug effects
  • Parkinson Disease / drug therapy*
  • Physical Exertion
  • Reward


  • Dopamine Agents
  • Dopamine