Cortical Grey Matter Mediates Increases in Model-Based Control and Learning from Positive Feedback from Adolescence to Adulthood

J Neurosci. 2023 Mar 22;43(12):2178-2189. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1418-22.2023. Epub 2023 Feb 23.


Cognition and brain structure undergo significant maturation from adolescence into adulthood. Model-based (MB) control is known to increase across development, which is mediated by cognitive abilities. Here, we asked two questions unaddressed in previous developmental studies. First, what are the brain structural correlates of age-related increases in MB control? Second, how are age-related increases in MB control from adolescence to adulthood influenced by motivational context? A human developmental sample (n = 103; age, 12-50, male/female, 55:48) completed structural MRI and an established task to capture MB control. The task was modified with respect to outcome valence by including (1) reward and punishment blocks to manipulate the motivational context and (2) an additional choice test to assess learning from positive versus negative feedback. After replicating that an age-dependent increase in MB control is mediated by cognitive abilities, we demonstrate first-time evidence that gray matter density (GMD) in the parietal cortex mediates the increase of MB control with age. Although motivational context did not relate to age-related changes in MB control, learning from positive feedback improved with age. Meanwhile, negative feedback learning showed no age effects. We present a first report that an age-related increase in positive feedback learning was mediated by reduced GMD in the parietal, medial, and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Our findings indicate that brain maturation, putatively reflected in lower GMD, in distinct and partially overlapping brain regions could lead to a more efficient brain organization and might thus be a key developmental step toward age-related increases in planning and value-based choice.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Changes in model-based decision-making are paralleled by extensive maturation in cognition and brain structure across development. Still, to date the neuroanatomical underpinnings of these changes remain unclear. Here, we demonstrate for the first time that parietal GMD mediates age-dependent increases in model-based control. Age-related increases in positive feedback learning were mediated by reduced GMD in the parietal, medial, and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. A manipulation of motivational context did not have an impact on age-related changes in model-based control. These findings highlight that brain maturation in distinct and overlapping cortical regions constitutes a key developmental step toward improved value-based choices.

Keywords: adolescence; development; model-based control; punishment learning; reinforcement learning; reward learning.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Brain*
  • Child
  • Cognition
  • Feedback
  • Female
  • Gray Matter* / diagnostic imaging
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Parietal Lobe / diagnostic imaging
  • Reward
  • Young Adult