Neurons in the lateral intraparietal (LIP) area of macaque monkey parietal cortex respond to cues predicting rewards and penalties of variable size in a manner that depends on the motivational salience of the predicted outcome (strong for both large reward and large penalty) rather than on its value (positive for large reward and negative for large penalty). This finding suggests that LIP mediates the capture of attention by salient events and does not encode value in the service of value-based decision making. It leaves open the question whether neurons elsewhere in the brain encode value in the identical task. To resolve this issue, we recorded neuronal activity in the amygdala in the context of the task employed in the LIP study. We found that responses to reward-predicting cues were similar between areas, with the majority of reward-sensitive neurons responding more strongly to cues that predicted large reward than to those that predicted small reward. Responses to penalty-predicting cues were, however, markedly different. In the amygdala, unlike LIP, few neurons were sensitive to penalty size, few penalty-sensitive neurons favored large over small penalty, and the dependence of firing rate on penalty size was negatively correlated with its dependence on reward size. These results indicate that amygdala neurons encoded cue value under circumstances in which LIP neurons exhibited sensitivity to motivational salience. However, the representation of negative value, as reflected in sensitivity to penalty size, was weaker than the representation of positive value, as reflected in sensitivity to reward size.
NEW & NOTEWORTHY This is the first study to characterize amygdala neuronal responses to cues predicting rewards and penalties of variable size in monkeys making value-based choices. Manipulating reward and penalty size allowed distinguishing activity dependent on motivational salience from activity dependent on value. This approach revealed in a previous study that neurons of the lateral intraparietal (LIP) area encode motivational salience. Here, it reveals that amygdala neurons encode value. The results establish a sharp functional distinction between the two areas.
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