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UNLABELLED: Integrating costs and benefits is crucial for optimal decision-making. Although much is known about decisions that involve outcome-related costs (e.g., delay, risk), many of our choices are attached to actions and require an evaluation of the associated motor costs. Yet how the brain incorporates motor costs into choices remains largely unclear. We used human fMRI during choices involving monetary reward and physical effort to identify brain regions that serve as a choice comparator for effort-reward trade-offs. By independently varying both options' effort and reward levels, we were able to identify the neural signature of a comparator mechanism. A network involving supplementary motor area and the caudal portion of dorsal anterior cingulate cortex encoded the difference in reward (positively) and effort levels (negatively) between chosen and unchosen choice options. We next modeled effort-discounted subjective values using a novel behavioral model. This revealed that the same network of regions involving dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and supplementary motor area encoded the difference between the chosen and unchosen options' subjective values, and that activity was best described using a concave model of effort-discounting. In addition, this signal reflected how precisely value determined participants' choices. By contrast, separate signals in supplementary motor area and ventromedial prefrontal cortex correlated with participants' tendency to avoid effort and seek reward, respectively. This suggests that the critical neural signature of decision-making for choices involving motor costs is found in human cingulate cortex and not ventromedial prefrontal cortex as typically reported for outcome-based choice. Furthermore, distinct frontal circuits seem to drive behavior toward reward maximization and effort minimization. SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT: The neural processes that govern the trade-off between expected benefits and motor costs remain largely unknown. This is striking because energetic requirements play an integral role in our day-to-day choices and instrumental behavior, and a diminished willingness to exert effort is a characteristic feature of a range of neurological disorders. We use a new behavioral characterization of how humans trade off reward maximization with effort minimization to examine the neural signatures that underpin such choices, using BOLD MRI neuroimaging data. We find the critical neural signature of decision-making, a signal that reflects the comparison of value between choice options, in human cingulate cortex, whereas two distinct brain circuits drive behavior toward reward maximization or effort minimization.

Original publication




Journal article


J Neurosci

Publication Date





10002 - 10015


cingulate cortex, cost-benefit decision making, fMRI, motor cost, physical effort, value comparison, Adult, Choice Behavior, Cognition, Discrimination Learning, Female, Gyrus Cinguli, Humans, Male, Nerve Net, Physical Exertion, Reward