Nature 439, 865-870 (16 February 2006) | doi:10.1038/nature04490

The primate amygdala represents the positive and negative value of visual stimuli during learning

Joseph J. Paton1,4, Marina A. Belova1,4, Sara E. Morrison1 and C. Daniel Salzman1,2,3

Visual stimuli can acquire positive or negative value through their association with rewards and punishments, a process called reinforcement learning. Although we now know a great deal about how the brain analyses visual information, we know little about how visual representations become linked with values. To study this process, we turned to the amygdala, a brain structure implicated in reinforcement learning1, 2, 3, 4, 5. We recorded the activity of individual amygdala neurons in monkeys while abstract images acquired either positive or negative value through conditioning. After monkeys had learned the initial associations, we reversed image value assignments. We examined neural responses in relation to these reversals in order to estimate the relative contribution to neural activity of the sensory properties of images and their conditioned values. Here we show that changes in the values of images modulate neural activity, and that this modulation occurs rapidly enough to account for, and correlates with, monkeys' learning. Furthermore, distinct populations of neurons encode the positive and negative values of visual stimuli. Behavioural and physiological responses to visual stimuli may therefore be based in part on the plastic representation of value provided by the amygdala.

  1. Center for Neurobiology and Behavior,
  2. W. M. Keck Center on Brain Plasticity and Cognition, and
  3. Department of Psychiatry, Columbia University, 1051 Riverside Drive, Unit 87, New York, New York 10032, USA
  4. *These authors contributed equally to this work

Correspondence to: C. Daniel Salzman1,2,3 Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to C.D.S. (Email: cds2005@columbia.edu).

Received 20 September 2005; Accepted 25 November 2005


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