Reward Boosts Neural Coding of Task Rules to Optimize Cognitive Flexibility.
Hall-McMaster S., Muhle-Karbe PS., Myers NE., Stokes MG.
Cognitive flexibility is critical for intelligent behavior. However, its execution is effortful and often suboptimal. Recent work indicates that flexible behavior can be improved by the prospect of reward, which suggests that rewards optimize flexible control processes. Here we investigated how different reward prospects influence neural encoding of task rule information to optimize cognitive flexibility. We applied representational similarity analysis to human electroencephalograms, recorded while female and male participants performed a rule-guided decision-making task. During the task, the prospect of reward varied from trial to trial. Participants made faster, more accurate judgements on high-reward trials. Critically, high reward boosted neural coding of the active task rule, and the extent of this increase was associated with improvements in task performance. Additionally, the effect of high reward on task rule coding was most pronounced on switch trials, where rules were updated relative to the previous trial. These results suggest that reward prospect can promote cognitive performance by strengthening neural coding of task rule information, helping to improve cognitive flexibility during complex behavior.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT The importance of motivation is evident in the ubiquity with which reward prospect guides adaptive behavior and the striking number of neurological conditions associated with motivational impairments. In this study, we investigated how dynamic changes in motivation, as manipulated through reward, shape neural coding for task rules during a flexible decision-making task. The results of this work suggest that motivation to obtain reward modulates the encoding of task rules needed for flexible behavior. The extent to which reward increased task rule coding also tracked improvements in behavioral performance under high-reward conditions. These findings help to inform how motivation shapes neural processing in the healthy human brain.