Scientific Understanding of Consciousness
Consciousness as an Emergent Property of Thalamocortical Activity

Orbitofrontal Cortex In Pursuit of Specific Rewards


Nature 454, 340-344 (17 July 2008)

The role of the orbitofrontal cortex in the pursuit of happiness and more specific rewards

Kathryn A. Burke, Theresa M. Franz, Danielle N. Miller & Geoffrey Schoenbaum

Program in Neuroscience,

Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology,

Department of Psychiatry, University of Maryland School of Medicine, 20 Penn Street, HSF-2 S251 Baltimore, Maryland 21201, USA

The Ingenuity Project, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, 1400 West Coldspring Lane, Baltimore, Maryland 21209, USA


Cues that reliably predict rewards trigger the thoughts and emotions normally evoked by those rewards. Humans and other animals will work, often quite hard, for these cues. This is termed conditioned reinforcement. The ability to use conditioned reinforcers to guide our behaviour is normally beneficial; however, it can go awry. For example, corporate icons, such as McDonald's Golden Arches, influence consumer behaviour in powerful and sometimes surprising ways, and drug-associated cues trigger relapse to drug seeking in addicts and animals exposed to addictive drugs, even after abstinence or extinction.

Yet, despite their prevalence, it is not known how conditioned reinforcers control human or other animal behaviour. One possibility is that they act through the use of the specific rewards they predict; alternatively, they could control behaviour directly by activating emotions that are independent of any specific reward.

We found that rats were willing to work for cues that evoked either outcome-specific or general affective representations. Furthermore the orbitofrontal cortex, a prefrontal region important for adaptive decision-making, was critical for outcome-specific but not for the general affective form of conditioned reinforcement.

The OFC is ultimately only one part of the brain circuit used by conditioned reinforcers to mobilize information. Areas such as the amygdala and the ventral striatum have also been implicated in responding for conditioned reinforcers.

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