Sarah Rudorf and Todd A. Hare
The Journal of Neuroscience, 26 November 2014, 34(48): 15988-15996
External circumstances and internal bodily states often change and require organisms to flexibly adapt valuation processes to select the optimal action in a given context. Here, we investigate the neurobiology of context-dependent valuation in 22 human subjects using functional magnetic resonance imaging. Subjects made binary choices between visual stimuli with three attributes (shape, color, and pattern) that were associated with monetary values. Context changes required subjects to deviate from the default shape valuation and to integrate a second attribute to comply with the goal to maximize rewards. Critically, this binary choice task did not involve any conflict between opposing monetary, temporal, or social preferences. We tested the hypothesis that interactions between regions of dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) implicated in self-control choices would also underlie the more general function of context-dependent valuation. Consistent with this idea, we found that the degree to which stimulus attributes were reflected in vmPFC activity varied as a function of context. In addition, activity in dlPFC increased when context changes required a reweighting of stimulus attribute values. Moreover, the strength of the functional connectivity between dlPFC and vmPFC was associated with the degree of context-specific attribute valuation in vmPFC at the time of choice. Our findings suggest that functional interactions between dlPFC and vmPFC are a key aspect of context-dependent valuation and that the role of this network during choices that require self-control to adjudicate between competing outcome preferences is a specific application of this more general neural mechanism.