Catecholaminergic Regulation of Learning Rate in a Dynamic Environment

Marieke Jepma*, Peter R. Murphy, Matthew R. Nassar, Mauricio Rangel-Gomez, Martijn Meeter, Sander Nieuwenhuis

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Adaptive behavior in a changing world requires flexibly adapting one’s rate of learning to the rate of environmental change. Recent studies have examined the computational mechanisms by which various environmental factors determine the impact of new outcomes on existing beliefs (i.e., the ‘learning rate’). However, the brain mechanisms, and in particular the neuromodulators, involved in this process are still largely unknown. The brain-wide neurophysiological effects of the catecholamines norepinephrine and dopamine on stimulus-evoked cortical responses suggest that the catecholamine systems are well positioned to regulate learning about environmental change, but more direct evidence for a role of this system is scant. Here, we report evidence from a study employing pharmacology, scalp electrophysiology and computational modeling (N = 32) that suggests an important role for catecholamines in learning rate regulation. We found that the P3 component of the EEG—an electrophysiological index of outcome-evoked phasic catecholamine release in the cortex—predicted learning rate, and formally mediated the effect of prediction-error magnitude on learning rate. P3 amplitude also mediated the effects of two computational variables—capturing the unexpectedness of an outcome and the uncertainty of a preexisting belief—on learning rate. Furthermore, a pharmacological manipulation of catecholamine activity affected learning rate following unanticipated task changes, in a way that depended on participants’ baseline learning rate. Our findings provide converging evidence for a causal role of the human catecholamine systems in learning-rate regulation as a function of environmental change.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere1005171
JournalPLoS Computational Biology
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2016


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