Neural responses in macaque prefrontal cortex are linked to strategic exploration.
Jahn CI., Grohn J., Cuell S., Emberton A., Bouret S., Walton ME., Kolling N., Sallet J.
Humans have been shown to strategically explore. They can identify situations in which gathering information about distant and uncertain options is beneficial for the future. Because primates rely on scarce resources when they forage, they are also thought to strategically explore, but whether they use the same strategies as humans and the neural bases of strategic exploration in monkeys are largely unknown. We designed a sequential choice task to investigate whether monkeys mobilize strategic exploration based on whether information can improve subsequent choice, but also to ask the novel question about whether monkeys adjust their exploratory choices based on the contingency between choice and information, by sometimes providing the counterfactual feedback about the unchosen option. We show that monkeys decreased their reliance on expected value when exploration could be beneficial, but this was not mediated by changes in the effect of uncertainty on choices. We found strategic exploratory signals in anterior and mid-cingulate cortex (ACC/MCC) and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC). This network was most active when a low value option was chosen, which suggests a role in counteracting expected value signals, when exploration away from value should to be considered. Such strategic exploration was abolished when the counterfactual feedback was available. Learning from counterfactual outcome was associated with the recruitment of a different circuit centered on the medial orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), where we showed that monkeys represent chosen and unchosen reward prediction errors. Overall, our study shows how ACC/MCC-dlPFC and OFC circuits together could support exploitation of available information to the fullest and drive behavior towards finding more information through exploration when it is beneficial.