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Keywords:

  • associative learning;
  • attention;
  • Pearce–Hall model;
  • posterior parietal cortex;
  • prediction error;
  • rat

Abstract

Within most contemporary learning theories, reinforcement prediction error, the difference between the obtained and expected reinforcer value, critically influences associative learning. In some theories, this prediction error determines the momentary effectiveness of the reinforcer itself, such that the same physical event produces more learning when its presentation is surprising than when it is expected. In other theories, prediction error enhances attention to potential cues for that reinforcer by adjusting cue-specific associability parameters, biasing the processing of those stimuli so that they more readily enter into new associations in the future. A unique feature of these latter theories is that such alterations in stimulus associability must be represented in memory in an enduring fashion. Indeed, considerable data indicate that altered associability may be expressed days after its induction. Previous research from our laboratory identified brain circuit elements critical to the enhancement of stimulus associability by the omission of an expected event, and to the subsequent expression of that altered associability in more rapid learning. Here, for the first time, we identified a brain region, the posterior parietal cortex, as a potential site for a memorial representation of altered stimulus associability. In three experiments using rats and a serial prediction task, we found that intact posterior parietal cortex function was essential during the encoding, consolidation, and retrieval of an associability memory enhanced by surprising omissions. We discuss these new results in the context of our previous findings and additional plausible frontoparietal and subcortical networks.