Ian C. Ballard, Vishnu P. Murty, R. McKell Carter, Jeffrey J. MacInnes, Scott A. Huettel, and R. Alison Adcock
J. Neurosci. 2011;31 10340-10346
How does the brain translate information signaling potential rewards into motivation to get them? Motivation to obtain reward is thought to depend on the midbrain [particularly the ventral tegmental area (VTA)], the nucleus accumbens (NAcc), and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC), but it is not clear how the interactions among these regions relate to reward-motivated behavior. To study the influence of motivation on these reward-responsive regions and on their interactions, we used dynamic causal modeling to analyze functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data from humans performing a simple task designed to isolate reward anticipation. The use of fMRI permitted the simultaneous measurement of multiple brain regions while human participants anticipated and prepared for opportunities to obtain reward, thus allowing characterization of how information about reward changes physiology underlying motivational drive. Furthermore, we modeled the impact of external reward cues on causal relationships within this network, thus elaborating a link between physiology, connectivity, and motivation. Specifically, our results indicated that dlPFC was the exclusive entry point of information about reward in this network, and that anticipated reward availability caused VTA activation only via its effect on the dlPFC. Anticipated reward thus increased dlPFC activation directly, whereas it influenced VTA and NAcc only indirectly, by enhancing intrinsically weak or inactive pathways from the dlPFC. Our findings of a directional prefrontal influence on dopaminergic regions during reward anticipation suggest a model in which the dlPFC integrates and transmits representations of reward to the mesolimbic and mesocortical dopamine systems, thereby initiating motivated behavior.