Timing and expectation of reward: a neuro-computational model of the afferents to the ventral tegmental area


Neural activity in dopaminergic areas such as the ventral tegmental area is influenced by timing processes, in particular by the temporal expectation of rewards during Pavlovian conditioning. Receipt of a reward at the expected time allows to compute reward-prediction errors which can drive learning in motor or cognitive structures. Reciprocally, dopamine plays an important role in the timing of external events. Several models of the dopaminergic system exist, but the substrate of temporal learning is rather unclear. In this article, we propose a neuro-computational model of the afferent network to the ventral tegmental area, including the lateral hypothalamus, the pedunculopontine nucleus, the amygdala, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the ventral basal ganglia (including the nucleus accumbens and the ventral pallidum), as well as the lateral habenula and the rostromedial tegmental nucleus. Based on a plausible connectivity and realistic learning rules, this neuro-computational model reproduces several experimental observations, such as the progressive cancelation of dopaminergic bursts at reward delivery, the appearance of bursts at the onset of reward-predicting cues or the influence of reward magnitude on activity in the amygdala and ventral tegmental area. While associative learning occurs primarily in the amygdala, learning of the temporal relationship between the cue and the associated reward is implemented as a dopamine-modulated coincidence detection mechanism in the nucleus accumbens.

Frontiers in Neurorobotics 8:4. doi:10.3389/fnbot.2014.00004