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The role of the orbitofrontal cortex in the pursuit of happiness and more specific rewards


Cues that reliably predict rewards trigger the thoughts and emotions normally evoked by those rewards. Humans and other animals will work, often quite hard, for these cues. This is termed conditioned reinforcement. The ability to use conditioned reinforcers to guide our behaviour is normally beneficial; however, it can go awry. For example, corporate icons, such as McDonald’s Golden Arches, influence consumer behaviour in powerful and sometimes surprising ways1, and drug-associated cues trigger relapse to drug seeking in addicts and animals exposed to addictive drugs, even after abstinence or extinction2,3. Yet, despite their prevalence, it is not known how conditioned reinforcers control human or other animal behaviour. One possibility is that they act through the use of the specific rewards they predict; alternatively, they could control behaviour directly by activating emotions that are independent of any specific reward. In other words, the Golden Arches may drive business because they evoke thoughts of hamburgers and fries, or instead, may be effective because they also evoke feelings of hunger or happiness. Moreover, different brain circuits could support conditioned reinforcement mediated by thoughts of specific outcomes versus more general affective information. Here we have attempted to address these questions in rats. Rats were trained to learn that different cues predicted different rewards using specialized conditioning procedures that controlled whether the cues evoked thoughts of specific outcomes or general affective representations common to different outcomes. Subsequently, these rats were given the opportunity to press levers to obtain short and otherwise unrewarded presentations of these cues. We found that rats were willing to work for cues that evoked either outcome-specific or general affective representations. Furthermore the orbitofrontal cortex, a prefrontal region important for adaptive decision-making4, was critical for the former but not for the latter form of conditioned reinforcement.

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Figure 1: Effect of orbitofrontal lesions on pavlovian conditioning and reinforcer devaluation.
Figure 2: Effect of orbitofrontal lesions on conditioned reinforcement for a fully conditioned A cue, for a blocked X cue, and for the partially blocked Y cue before and after reinforcer devaluation.
Figure 3: Effect of orbitofrontal lesions on pavlovian conditioned responding after transreinforcer blocking in extinction probe tests.

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We are grateful to A. Delamater and P. Holland for their advice on this work. This work was supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

Author Contributions K.A.B. and G.S. conceived the experiments; K.A.B., D.N.M. and T.M.F. carried out the experiments; K.A.B. and G.S. analysed the data and co-wrote the manuscript with assistance from each of the other authors.

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Correspondence to Geoffrey Schoenbaum.

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Burke, K., Franz, T., Miller, D. et al. The role of the orbitofrontal cortex in the pursuit of happiness and more specific rewards. Nature 454, 340–344 (2008).

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