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Medial orbitofrontal cortex codes relative rather than absolute value of financial rewards in humans


Dr Rebecca Elliott, as above.


Functional imaging studies in recent years have confirmed the involvement of orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) in human reward processing and have suggested that OFC responses are context-dependent. A seminal electrophysiological experiment in primates taught animals to associate abstract visual stimuli with differently valuable food rewards. Subsequently, pairs of these learned abstract stimuli were presented and firing of OFC neurons to the medium-value stimulus was measured. OFC firing was shown to depend on the relative value context. In this study, we developed a human analogue of this paradigm and scanned subjects using functional magnetic resonance imaging. The analysis compared neuronal responses to two superficially identical events, which differed only in terms of the preceding context. Medial OFC response to the same perceptual stimulus was greater when the stimulus predicted the more valuable of two rewards than when it predicted the less valuable. Additional responses were observed in other components of reward circuitry, the amygdala and ventral striatum. The central finding is consistent with the primate results and suggests that OFC neurons code relative rather than absolute reward value. Amygdala and striatal involvement in coding reward value is also consistent with recent functional imaging data. By using a simpler and less confounded paradigm than many functional imaging studies, we are able to demonstrate that relative financial reward value per se is coded in distinct subregions of an extended reward and decision-making network.