Dopamine neurons report an error in the temporal prediction of reward during learning

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Many behaviors are affected by rewards, undergoing long-term changes when rewards are different than predicted but remaining unchanged when rewards occur exactly as predicted. The discrepancy between reward occurrence and reward prediction is termed an 'error in reward prediction'. Dopamine neurons in the substantia nigra and the ventral tegmental area are believed to be involved in reward-dependent behaviors. Consistent with this role, they are activated by rewards, and because they are activated more strongly by unpredicted than by predicted rewards they may play a role in learning. The present study investigated whether monkey dopamine neurons code an error in reward prediction during the course of learning. Dopamine neuron responses reflected the changes in reward prediction during individual learning episodes; dopamine neurons were activated by rewards during early trials, when errors were frequent and rewards unpredictable, but activation was progressively reduced as performance was consolidated and rewards became more predictable. These neurons were also activated when rewards occurred at unpredicted times and were depressed when rewards were omitted at the predicted times. Thus, dopamine neurons code errors in the prediction of both the occurrence and the time of rewards. In this respect, their responses resemble the teaching signals that have been employed in particularly efficient computational learning models.

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Figure 1: The discrimination learning task.
Figure 2: Learning curves.
Figure 3: Reward responses of three dopamine neurons (a–c) during learning of pairs of novel pictures.
Figure 4: Changes of average population response (54 neurons tested) to reward during learning.
Figure 5: Comparison between progress of learning and neuronal responses to reward.
Figure 6: Responses of dopamine neurons related to errors in the temporal prediction of reward.


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We thank Anthony Dickinson, David Gaffan and P. Read Montague for helpful discussions and advice, and B. Aebischer, J. Corpataux, A. Gaillard, A. Pisani, A. Schwarz and F. Tinguely for expert technical assistance. Supported by Swiss NSF, Roche Research Foundation and NIMH postdoctoral fellowship to J.R.H.

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Correspondence to Wolfram Schultz.

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