• basal ganglia;
  • capacity;
  • human;
  • prefrontal cortex;
  • striatum


Instrumental learning involves corticostriatal circuitry and the dopaminergic system. This system is typically modeled in the reinforcement learning (RL) framework by incrementally accumulating reward values of states and actions. However, human learning also implicates prefrontal cortical mechanisms involved in higher level cognitive functions. The interaction of these systems remains poorly understood, and models of human behavior often ignore working memory (WM) and therefore incorrectly assign behavioral variance to the RL system. Here we designed a task that highlights the profound entanglement of these two processes, even in simple learning problems. By systematically varying the size of the learning problem and delay between stimulus repetitions, we separately extracted WM-specific effects of load and delay on learning. We propose a new computational model that accounts for the dynamic integration of RL and WM processes observed in subjects’ behavior. Incorporating capacity-limited WM into the model allowed us to capture behavioral variance that could not be captured in a pure RL framework even if we (implausibly) allowed separate RL systems for each set size. The WM component also allowed for a more reasonable estimation of a single RL process. Finally, we report effects of two genetic polymorphisms having relative specificity for prefrontal and basal ganglia functions. Whereas the COMT gene coding for catechol-O-methyl transferase selectively influenced model estimates of WM capacity, the GPR6 gene coding for G-protein-coupled receptor 6 influenced the RL learning rate. Thus, this study allowed us to specify distinct influences of the high-level and low-level cognitive functions on instrumental learning, beyond the possibilities offered by simple RL models.