The neural bases of action-outcome learning in humans

Richard W Morris, Amir Dezfouli, Kristi R Griffiths, Mike E Le Pelley, Bernard W Balleine

The Journal Of Neuroscience

March 2022


From an associative perspective the acquisition of new goal-directed actions requires the encoding of specific action-outcome (AO) associations and, therefore, sensitivity to the validity of an action as a predictor of a specific outcome relative to other events. Although competitive architectures have been proposed within associative learning theory to achieve this kind of identity-based selection, whether and how these architectures are implemented by the brain is still a matter of conjecture. To investigate this issue, we trained human participants to encode various AO associations while undergoing functional neuroimaging (fMRI). We then degraded one AO contingency by increasing the probability of the outcome in the absence of its associated action while keeping other AO contingencies intact. We found that this treatment selectively reduced performance of the degraded action. Furthermore, when a signal predicted the unpaired outcome, performance of the action was restored, suggesting that the degradation effect reflects competition between the action and the context for prediction of the specific outcome. We used a Kalman filter to model the contribution of different causal variables to AO learning and found that activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) tracked changes in the association of the action and context, respectively, with regard to the specific outcome. Furthermore, we found the mPFC participated in a network with the striatum and posterior parietal cortex to segregate the influence of the various competing predictors to establish specific AO associations.