Meta-reinforcement learning via orbitofrontal cortex

Nat Neurosci. 2023 Dec;26(12):2182-2191. doi: 10.1038/s41593-023-01485-3. Epub 2023 Nov 13.


The meta-reinforcement learning (meta-RL) framework, which involves RL over multiple timescales, has been successful in training deep RL models that generalize to new environments. It has been hypothesized that the prefrontal cortex may mediate meta-RL in the brain, but the evidence is scarce. Here we show that the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) mediates meta-RL. We trained mice and deep RL models on a probabilistic reversal learning task across sessions during which they improved their trial-by-trial RL policy through meta-learning. Ca2+/calmodulin-dependent protein kinase II-dependent synaptic plasticity in OFC was necessary for this meta-learning but not for the within-session trial-by-trial RL in experts. After meta-learning, OFC activity robustly encoded value signals, and OFC inactivation impaired the RL behaviors. Longitudinal tracking of OFC activity revealed that meta-learning gradually shapes population value coding to guide the ongoing behavioral policy. Our results indicate that two distinct RL algorithms with distinct neural mechanisms and timescales coexist in OFC to support adaptive decision-making.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Mice
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology
  • Reinforcement, Psychology*
  • Reversal Learning / physiology
  • Reward*