Striatal dopaminergic modulation of reinforcement learning predicts reward—oriented behavior in daily life

Much human behavior is driven by rewards. Preclinical neurophysiological and clinical positron emission tomography (PET) studies have implicated striatal phasic dopamine (DA) release as a primary modulator of reward processing. However, the relationship between experimental reward-induced striatal DA release and responsiveness to naturalistic rewards, and therefore functional relevance of these findings, has been elusive.

The study, therefore, combined, for the first time, a DA D2/3 receptor [18F]fallypride PET during a probabilistic reinforcement learning (RL) task with a six day ecological momentary assessments (EMA) of reward-related behavior in the everyday life of 16 healthy volunteers. The authors detected significant reward-induced DA release in the bilateral putamen, caudate nucleus, and ventral striatum, the extent of which was associated with better behavioral performance on the RL task across all regions. Furthermore, individual variability in the extent of reward-induced DA release in the right caudate nucleus and ventral striatum modulated the tendency to be actively engaged in a behavior if the active engagement was previously deemed enjoyable. This study suggests a link between striatal reward-related DA release and ecologically relevant reward-oriented behavior, suggesting an avenue for the inquiry into the DAergic basis of optimal and impaired motivational drive.