Activity in human reward-sensitive brain areas is strongly context dependent.
Nieuwenhuis S., Heslenfeld DJ., von Geusau NJA., Mars RB., Holroyd CB., Yeung N.
Functional neuroimaging research in humans has identified a number of brain areas that are activated by the delivery of primary and secondary reinforcers. The present study investigated how activity in these reward-sensitive regions is modulated by the context in which rewards and punishments are experienced. Fourteen healthy volunteers were scanned during the performance of a simple monetary gambling task that involved a "win" condition (in which the possible outcomes were a large monetary gain, a small gain, or no gain of money) and a "lose" condition (in which the possible outcomes were a large monetary loss, a small loss, or no loss of money). We observed reward-sensitive activity in a number of brain areas previously implicated in reward processing, including the striatum, prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate, and inferior parietal lobule. Critically, activity in these reward-sensitive areas was highly sensitive to the range of possible outcomes from which an outcome was selected. In particular, these regions were activated to a comparable degree by the best outcomes in each condition-a large gain in the win condition and no loss of money in the lose condition-despite the large difference in the objective value of these outcomes. In addition, some reward-sensitive brain areas showed a binary instead of graded sensitivity to the magnitude of the outcomes from each distribution. These results provide important evidence regarding the way in which the brain scales the motivational value of events by the context in which these events occur.