Neural encoding of competitive effort in the anterior cingulate cortex
Kristin L Hillman and David K Bilkey
Nature Neuroscience 15, 1290–1297 (2012)
In social environments, animals often compete to obtain limited resources. Strategically electing to work against another animal represents a cost-benefit decision. Is the resource worth an investment of competitive effort? The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) has been implicated in cost-benefit decision-making, but its role in competitive effort has not been examined. We recorded ACC neurons in freely moving rats as they performed a competitive foraging choice task. When at least one of the two choice options demanded competitive effort, the majority of ACC neurons exhibited heightened and differential firing between the goal trajectories. Inter- and intrasession manipulations revealed that differential firing was not attributable to effort or reward in isolation; instead ACC encoding patterns appeared to indicate net utility assessments of available choice options. Our findings suggest that the ACC is important for encoding competitive effort, a cost-benefit domain that has received little neural-level investigation despite its predominance in nature.