Beyond negative valence: 2-week administration of a serotonergic antidepressant enhances both reward and effort learning signals.
Scholl J., Kolling N., Nelissen N., Browning M., Rushworth MFS., Harmer CJ.
To make good decisions, humans need to learn about and integrate different sources of appetitive and aversive information. While serotonin has been linked to value-based decision-making, its role in learning is less clear, with acute manipulations often producing inconsistent results. Here, we show that when the effects of a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI, citalopram) are studied over longer timescales, learning is robustly improved. We measured brain activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in volunteers as they performed a concurrent appetitive (money) and aversive (effort) learning task. We found that 2 weeks of citalopram enhanced reward and effort learning signals in a widespread network of brain regions, including ventromedial prefrontal and anterior cingulate cortex. At a behavioral level, this was accompanied by more robust reward learning. This suggests that serotonin can modulate the ability to learn via a mechanism that is independent of stimulus valence. Such effects may partly underlie SSRIs' impact in treating psychological illnesses. Our results highlight both a specific function in learning for serotonin and the importance of studying its role across longer timescales.