Stimulating human prefrontal cortex increases reward learning.
Overman MJ., Sarrazin V., Browning M., O'Shea J.
Work in computational psychiatry suggests that mood disorders may stem from aberrant reinforcement learning processes. Specifically, it has been proposed that depressed individuals believe that negative events are more informative than positive events, resulting in higher learning rates from negative outcomes (Pulcu and Browning, 2019). In this proof-of-concept study, we investigated whether transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) applied to dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, as commonly used in depression treatment trials, might change learning rates for affective outcomes. Healthy adults completed an established reinforcement learning task (Pulcu and Browning, 2017) in which the information content of reward and loss outcomes was manipulated by varying the volatility of stimulus-outcome associations. Learning rates on the tasks were quantified using computational models. Stimulation over dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) but not motor cortex (M1) increased learning rates specifically for reward outcomes. The effects of prefrontal tDCS were cognitive state-dependent: tDCS applied during task performance increased learning rates for wins; tDCS applied before task performance decreased both win and loss learning rates. A replication study confirmed the key finding that tDCS to DLPFC during task performance increased learning rates specifically for rewards. Taken together, these findings demonstrate the potential of tDCS for modulating computational parameters of reinforcement learning that are relevant to mood disorders.