Human reversal learning under conditions of certain versus uncertain outcomes

Anna Maria D'Cruz, Michael E. Ragozzino, Matthew W. Mosconi, Mani N. Pavuluri, John A. Sweeney

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

40 Scopus citations


Reversal learning tasks assess behavioral flexibility by requiring subjects to switch from one learned response choice to a different response choice when task contingencies change. This requires both the processing of negative feedback once a learned response is no longer reinforced, and the capacity for flexible response selection. In 2-choice reversal learning tasks, subjects switch between only two responses. Multiple choice reversal learning is qualitatively different in that at reversal, it requires subjects to respond to non-reinforcement of a learned response by selecting a new response from among several alternatives that have uncertain consequences. While activity in brain regions responsible for processing unexpected negative feedback is known to increase in relation to the hedonic value of the reward itself, it is not known whether the uncertainty of reinforcement for future response choices also modulates these responses. In an fMRI study, 15 participants performed 2- and 4-choice reversal learning tasks. Upon reversal in both tasks, activation was observed in brain regions associated with processing changing reinforcement contingencies (midbrain, ventral striatum, insula), as well as in neocortical regions that support cognitive control and behavioral planning (prefrontal, premotor, posterior parietal, and anterior cingulate cortices). Activation in both systems was greater in the 4- than in the 2-choice task. Therefore, reinforcement uncertainty for future responses enhanced activity in brain systems that process performance feedback, as well as in areas supporting behavioral planning of future response choices. A mutually facilitative integration of responses in motivational and cognitive brain systems might enhance behavioral flexibility and decision making in conditions for which outcomes for future response choices are uncertain.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)315-322
Number of pages8
Issue number1
StatePublished - May 1 2011


  • Cognitive flexibility
  • FMRI
  • Human
  • Reinforcement learning
  • Reversal learning
  • Reward processing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neurology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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