The value of what’s to come: Neural mechanisms coupling prediction error and the utility of anticipation

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Science Advances  19 Jun 2020:
Vol. 6, no. 25, eaba3828
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aba3828


Having something to look forward to is a keystone of well-being. Anticipation of future reward, such as an upcoming vacation, can often be more gratifying than the experience itself. Theories suggest the utility of anticipation underpins various behaviors, ranging from beneficial information-seeking to harmful addiction. However, how neural systems compute anticipatory utility remains unclear. We analyzed the brain activity of human participants as they performed a task involving choosing whether to receive information predictive of future pleasant outcomes. Using a computational model, we show three brain regions orchestrate anticipatory utility. Specifically, ventromedial prefrontal cortex tracks the value of anticipatory utility, dopaminergic midbrain correlates with information that enhances anticipation, while sustained hippocampal activity mediates a functional coupling between these regions. Our findings suggest a previously unidentified neural underpinning for anticipation’s influence over decision-making and unify a range of phenomena associated with risk and time-delay preference.

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