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The neural correlates of temporal reward discounting


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Temporal reward discounting (TD) refers to the decrease in subjective value of a reward when the delay to that reward increases. In recent years, a growing number of studies on the neural correlates of temporal reward discounting have been conducted. This article focuses on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies on TD in humans. First, we describe the different types of tasks (also from behavioral studies) and the dependent variables. Subsequently, we discuss the evidence for three neurobiological models of TD: the dual-systems model, the single-system model and the self-control model. Further, studies in which nontraditional tasks (e.g., with nonmonetary rewards) were used to study TD are reviewed. Finally, we discuss the neural correlates of individual differences in discounting, and its development across the lifespan. We conclude that the evidence for each of the three neurobiological models of TD is mixed, in that all models receive (partial) support, and several studies provide support for multiple models. Because of large differences between studies in task design and analytical approach, it is difficult to draw a firm conclusion regarding which model provides the best explanation of the neural correlates of temporal discounting. We propose that some components of these models can complement each other, and future studies should test the predictions offered by different models against each other. Several future research directions are suggested, including studying the connectivity between brain regions in relation to discounting, and directly comparing the neural mechanisms involved in discounting of monetary and primary rewards. WIREs Cogn Sci 2013, 4:523–545. doi: 10.1002/wcs.1246

Conflict of interest: The authors have declared no conflicts of interest for this article.

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