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The mesolimbic dopaminergic system exerts a crucial influence on incentive processing. However, the contribution of dopamine in dynamic, ecological situations where reward rates vary, and decisions evolve over time, remains unclear. In such circumstances, current (foreground) reward accrual needs to be compared continuously with potential rewards that could be obtained by travelling elsewhere (background reward rate), in order to determine the opportunity cost of staying versus leaving. We hypothesised that dopamine specifically modulates the influence of background - but not foreground - reward information when making a dynamic comparison of these variables for optimal behaviour. On a novel foraging task based on an ecological account of animal behaviour (marginal value theorem), human participants of either sex decided when to leave locations in situations where foreground rewards depleted at different rates, either in rich or poor environments with high or low background rates. In line with theoretical accounts, people's decisions to move from current locations were independently modulated by changes in both foreground and background reward rates. Pharmacological manipulation of dopamine D2 receptor activity using the agonist cabergoline significantly affected decisions to move on, specifically modulating the effect of background reward rates. In particular, when on cabergoline, people left patches in poor environments much earlier. These results demonstrate a role of dopamine in signalling the opportunity cost of rewards, not value per se. Using this ecologically derived framework we uncover a specific mechanism by which D2 dopamine receptor activity modulates decision-making when foreground and background reward rates are dynamically compared.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENTMany decisions, across economic, political and social spheres, involve choices to "leave". Such decisions depend on a continuous comparison of a current location's value, with that of other locations you could move on to. However, how the brain makes such decisions is poorly understood. Here, we developed a computerized task, based around theories of how animals make decisions to move on when foraging for food. Healthy human participants had to decide when to leave collecting financial rewards in a location, and travel to collect rewards elsewhere. Using a pharmacological manipulation, we show that the activity of dopamine in the brain modulates decisions to move on, with people valuing other locations differently depending on their dopaminergic state.

Original publication




Journal article


J Neurosci

Publication Date