The Computational, Pharmacological, and Physiological Determinants of Sensory Learning under Uncertainty

Curr Biol. 2021 Jan 11;31(1):163-172.e4. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2020.10.043. Epub 2020 Nov 13.


The ability to represent and respond to uncertainty is fundamental to human cognition and decision-making. Noradrenaline (NA) is hypothesized to play a key role in coordinating the sensory, learning, and physiological states necessary to adapt to a changing world, but direct evidence for this is lacking in humans. Here, we tested the effects of attenuating noradrenergic neurotransmission on learning under uncertainty. We probed the effects of the β-adrenergic receptor antagonist propranolol (40 mg) using a between-subjects, double-blind, placebo-controlled design. Participants performed a probabilistic associative learning task, and we employed a hierarchical learning model to formally quantify prediction errors about cue-outcome contingencies and changes in these associations over time (volatility). Both unexpectedness and noise slowed down reaction times, but propranolol augmented the interaction between these main effects such that behavior was influenced more by prior expectations when uncertainty was high. Computationally, this was driven by a reduction in learning rates, with people slower to update their beliefs in the face of new information. Attenuating the global effects of NA also eliminated the phasic effects of prediction error and volatility on pupil size, consistent with slower belief updating. Finally, estimates of environmental volatility were predicted by baseline cardiac measures in all participants. Our results demonstrate that NA underpins behavioral and computational responses to uncertainty. These findings have important implications for understanding the impact of uncertainty on human biology and cognition.

Keywords: Bayesian; anxiety; blood pressure; cardiac; computational modeling; learning; noradrenaline; perception; pupillometry; uncertainty.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adrenergic beta-Antagonists / administration & dosage
  • Adult
  • Bayes Theorem
  • Cognition
  • Computer Simulation
  • Decision Making / drug effects
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Double-Blind Method
  • Female
  • Healthy Volunteers
  • Humans
  • Learning / drug effects
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Male
  • Models, Psychological
  • Models, Statistical
  • Norepinephrine / metabolism*
  • Photic Stimulation / methods
  • Propranolol / administration & dosage
  • Uncertainty*
  • Visual Perception / physiology
  • Young Adult


  • Adrenergic beta-Antagonists
  • Propranolol
  • Norepinephrine