Neuroelectric signatures of reward learning and decision-making in the human nucleus accumbens

Michael X. Cohen, Nikolai Axmacher, Doris Lenartz, Christian E. Elger, Volker Sturm, Thomas E. Schlaepfer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

55 Scopus citations


Learning that certain actions lead to risky rewards is critical for biological, social, and economic survival, but the precise neural mechanisms of such reward-guided learning remain unclear. Here, we show that the human nucleus accumbens plays a key role in learning about risks by representing reward value. We recorded electrophysiological activity directly from the nucleus accumbens of five patients undergoing deep brain stimulation for treatment of refractory major depression. Patients engaged in a simple reward-learning task in which they first learned stimulus-outcome associations (learning task), and then were able to choose from among the learned stimuli (choosing task). During the learning task, nucleus accumbens activity reflected potential and received reward values both during the cue stimulus and during the feedback. During the choosing task, there was no nucleus accumbens activity during the cue stimulus, but feedback-related activity was pronounced and similar to that during the learning task. This pattern of results is inconsistent with a prediction error response. Finally, analyses of cross-correlations between the accumbens and simultaneous recordings of medial frontal cortex suggest a dynamic interaction between these structures. The high spatial and temporal resolution of these recordings provides novel insights into the timing of activity in the human nucleus accumbens, its functions during reward-guided learning and decision-making, and its interactions with medial frontal cortex.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1649-1658
Number of pages10
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jun 2009
Externally publishedYes


  • Intracranial EEG
  • Motivation
  • Nucleus accumbens
  • Prediction error
  • Reward
  • Risk-taking

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pharmacology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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