Dopamine promotes cognitive effort by biasing the benefits versus costs of cognitive work

Science. 2020 Mar 20;367(6484):1362-1366. doi: 10.1126/science.aaz5891.


Stimulants such as methylphenidate are increasingly used for cognitive enhancement but precise mechanisms are unknown. We found that methylphenidate boosts willingness to expend cognitive effort by altering the benefit-to-cost ratio of cognitive work. Willingness to expend effort was greater for participants with higher striatal dopamine synthesis capacity, whereas methylphenidate and sulpiride, a selective D2 receptor antagonist, increased cognitive motivation more for participants with lower synthesis capacity. A sequential sampling model informed by momentary gaze revealed that decisions to expend effort are related to amplification of benefit-versus-cost information attended early in the decision process, whereas the effect of benefits is strengthened with higher synthesis capacity and by methylphenidate. These findings demonstrate that methylphenidate boosts the perceived benefits versus costs of cognitive effort by modulating striatal dopamine signaling.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Caudate Nucleus / metabolism
  • Choice Behavior
  • Cognition / drug effects*
  • Corpus Striatum / metabolism*
  • Decision Making
  • Dopamine / biosynthesis
  • Dopamine / metabolism*
  • Dopamine D2 Receptor Antagonists / pharmacology
  • Dopamine Uptake Inhibitors / pharmacology
  • Female
  • Fixation, Ocular
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory
  • Methylphenidate / pharmacology*
  • Motivation / drug effects*
  • Reward
  • Saccades
  • Signal Transduction / drug effects
  • Sulpiride / pharmacology*
  • Young Adult


  • Dopamine D2 Receptor Antagonists
  • Dopamine Uptake Inhibitors
  • Methylphenidate
  • Sulpiride
  • Dopamine