Substance-dependent individuals make poor decisions on the Iowa Gambling Task, a reward-related decision-making task that involves risk and uncertainty. Task performance depends on several factors, including how sensitive individuals are to feedback and how well they learn based on such feedback. A physiological signal that guides decision making based on feedback is prediction error. The authors investigated whether disruptions in the neural systems underlying prediction error processing in substance-dependent individuals could account for decision-making performance on a modified Iowa Gambling Task.
Thirty-two substance-dependent individuals and 30 healthy comparison subjects played a modified version of the Iowa Gambling Task during MR scanning. Trial-to-trial behavior and functional MRI (fMRI) blood-oxygen-level-dependent (BOLD) signal were analyzed using a computational model of prediction error based on internal expectancies. The authors investigated how well BOLD signal tracked prediction error in the striatum and the orbitofrontal cortex as well as over the whole brain in patients relative to comparison subjects.
Compared with healthy subjects, substance-dependent patients were less sensitive to loss compared with gain, made less consistent choices, and performed worse on the modified Iowa Gambling Task. The ventral striatum and medial orbitofrontal cortex did not track prediction error as strongly in patients as in healthy subjects.
Weaker tracking of prediction error in substance-dependent relative to healthy individuals suggests that altered frontal-striatal error learning signals may underlie decision-making impairments in drug abusers. Computational fMRI may help bridge the knowledge gap between physiology and behavior to inform research aimed at substance abuse treatment.