Nicole Cooper, Joseph W. Kable, B. Kyu Kim, and Gal Zauberman
J. Neurosci. 2013;33 13150-13156
People vary widely in how much they discount delayed rewards, yet little is known about the sources of these differences. Here we demonstrate that neural activity in ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) and ventral striatum (VS) when human subjects are asked to merely think about the future—specifically, to judge the subjective length of future time intervals—predicts delay discounting. High discounters showed lower activity for longer time delays, while low discounters showed the opposite pattern. Our results demonstrate that the correlation between VMPFC and VS activity and discounting occurs even in the absence of choices about future rewards, and does not depend on a person explicitly evaluating future outcomes or judging their self-relevance. This suggests a link between discounting and basic processes involved in thinking about the future, such as temporal perception. Our results also suggest that reducing impatience requires not suppression of VMPFC and VS activity altogether, but rather modulation of how these regions respond to the present versus the future.