The Effect of Counterfactual Information on Outcome Value Coding in Medial Prefrontal and Cingulate Cortex: From an Absolute to a Relative Neural Code

J Neurosci. 2020 Apr 15;40(16):3268-3277. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1712-19.2020. Epub 2020 Mar 10.


Adaptive coding of stimuli is well documented in perception, where it supports efficient encoding over a broad range of possible percepts. Recently, a similar neural mechanism has been reported also in value-based decision, where it allows optimal encoding of vast ranges of values in PFC: neuronal response to value depends on the choice context (relative coding), rather than being invariant across contexts (absolute coding). Additionally, value learning is sensitive to the amount of feedback information: providing complete feedback (both obtained and forgone outcomes) instead of partial feedback (only obtained outcome) improves learning. However, it is unclear whether relative coding occurs in all PFC regions and how it is affected by feedback information. We systematically investigated univariate and multivariate feedback encoding in various mPFC regions and compared three modes of neural coding: absolute, partially-adaptive and fully-adaptive.Twenty-eight human participants (both sexes) performed a learning task while undergoing fMRI scanning. On each trial, they chose between two symbols associated with a certain outcome. Then, the decision outcome was revealed. Notably, in one-half of the trials participants received partial feedback, whereas in the other half they got complete feedback. We used univariate and multivariate analysis to explore value encoding in different feedback conditions.We found that both obtained and forgone outcomes were encoded in mPFC, but with opposite sign in its ventral and dorsal subdivisions. Moreover, we showed that increasing feedback information induced a switch from absolute to relative coding. Our results suggest that complete feedback information enhances context-dependent outcome encoding.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT This study offers a systematic investigation of the effect of the amount of feedback information (partial vs complete) on univariate and multivariate outcome value encoding, within multiple regions in mPFC and cingulate cortex that are critical for value-based decisions and behavioral adaptation. Moreover, we provide the first comparison of three possible models of neural coding (i.e., absolute, partially-adaptive, and fully-adaptive coding) of value signal in these regions, by using commensurable measures of prediction accuracy. Taken together, our results help build a more comprehensive picture of how the human brain encodes and processes outcome value. In particular, our results suggest that simultaneous presentation of obtained and foregone outcomes promotes relative value representation.

Keywords: counterfactual; decision-making; multivariate encoding; reinforcement learning; relative coding; reward encoding.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Feedback, Psychological / physiology*
  • Female
  • Functional Neuroimaging
  • Gyrus Cinguli / diagnostic imaging*
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Prefrontal Cortex / diagnostic imaging*
  • Reinforcement, Psychology
  • Young Adult