How usefulness shapes neural representations during goal-directed behavior

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Science Advances  07 Apr 2021:
Vol. 7, no. 15, eabd5363
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abd5363


Value is often associated with reward, emphasizing its hedonic aspects. However, when circumstances change, value must also change (a compass outvalues gold, if you are lost). How are value representations in the brain reshaped under different behavioral goals? To answer this question, we devised a new task that decouples usefulness from its hedonic attributes, allowing us to study flexible goal-dependent mapping. Here, we show that, unlike sensory cortices, regions in the prefrontal cortex (PFC)—usually associated with value computation—remap their representation of perceptually identical items according to how useful the item has been to achieve a specific goal. Furthermore, we identify a coding scheme in the PFC that represents value regardless of the goal, thus supporting generalization across contexts. Our work questions the dominant view that equates value with reward, showing how a change in goals triggers a reorganization of the neural representation of value, enabling flexible behavior.

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