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What are the core neural and cognitive building blocks of flexible behaviour? 

Unexpected events, or prediction errors, are a central notion in theoretical models of reinforcement learning, perceptual inference and decision-making. However, these models come in many flavours and assign prediction errors different roles. For example, attention research has emphasized prediction errors as surprise signals that guide attentional redirection (e.g. a fire alarm), while in reinforcement learning they are conceptualised as teaching signals used to update beliefs.

In this line of work, we aim to unify these theoretical frameworks to gain a deeper understanding of the multiple roles of prediction errors by combining neuroimaging (fMRI) with computational models of brain connectivity (DCMand behaviour (see our reinforcement learning tutorial). We are particularly interested in the central role of the striatum in gating cortical information flow, based on prediction error or surprise responses that  signal the need for updating, as well as the neurochemical specificity of different classes of prediction errors, using fMRI, pharmacology and MRS. 

Read more: 

Prediction errors in perception, attention and motivation. den Ouden HEM, Kok P, De Lange F. (2012) Frontiers in Psychology. pubmed pdf

Striatal prediction error modulates cortical coupling. den Ouden HEM, Daunizeau J, Roiser J, Friston KJ, Stephan KE (2010). Journal of Neuroscience. pubmed pdf

Selective attentional enhancement and inhibition of fronto-posterior connecticity by the basal ganglia during attention switching. Van Schouwenburg MR, den Ouden HEM, Cools RC (2015). Cerebral Cortex. pubmed pdf

Hierarchical prediction errors in dopaminergic and cholinergic regions during sensory learning. Iglesias S, Mathys C, Brodersen KH, Kasper L, Piccirelli M, den Ouden HEM, Stephan KE (2013). Neuron.  pubmed pdf


How do our motivations shape our actions? 

In parallel to developing a principled account of the basic neural and cognitive building blocks for learning and decision-making, we investigate how our motivations influence our actions and choices. Although we feel like we are in control of our actions and make decisions rationally, we make predictably ill-fated choices. In this line of work, we investigate how ‘irrational’ forces govern our choices and how we may (fail to) control these, with a focus on the following central themes:

Neuropharmacology: Dopamine and serotonin are the key neurotransmitter systems implicated in reinforcement learning and decision-making and associated psychiatric disorders. Using both natural genetic variation in and pharmacological interventions, we try to unravel the role of serotonin and dopamine in behavioural flexibility and (control of) motivational biases.

Neural circuitryWe leverage our research on the basic neural circuitry and interactions of the frontal cortex (control/planning) and the striatum (action/inhibition) to investigate how they interact to balance fast, ‘Pavlovian’ versus goal-directed ‘instrumental’ control systems. Particularly, to assess directional and causal influences in striatal-frontal interactions, we combine EEG/fMRI in healthy individuals as well as intracranial recordings and stimulation in psychiatric patients who receive striatal deep brain stimulation.

Individual differences in health and disease: How do differences between individuals in the synergistic and competitive effects of motivational biases on goal-directed behaviour relate to real life behaviour? Can we predict who can adjust this balance with changing environmental demands? How may psychiatric disorders be characterised by either too much (compulsions, depression), or too little (drug abuse; overeating) frontal control? 

Read more: 

Dissociable effects of serotonin and dopamine on reversal learning. den Ouden HEM, Daw ND, Fernandez G, Elshout JA, Rijpkema M, Hoogman M, Franke B, Cools R (2013). Neuron. pubmed pdf

Acute serotonin depletion releases motivated inhibition of response vigour. den Ouden HEM, Swart JC, Schmidt K, Fekkes D, Geurts DEM, Cools R (2015). Psychopharmacology. pubmed pdf

Serotonin and aversive Pavlovian control of instrumental behavior in humansGeurts DEM, Huys QJM, den Ouden HEM, Cools R (2013), Journal of Neuroscience.  pubmed pdf