Knowing good from bad: differential activation of human cortical areas by positive and negative outcomes

Sander Nieuwenhuis, Heleen A Slagter, Niels J Alting von Geusau, Dirk J Heslenfeld, Clay B Holroyd

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Previous research has identified a component of the event-related brain potential (ERP), the feedback-related negativity, that is elicited by feedback stimuli associated with unfavourable outcomes. In the present research we used event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalographic (EEG) recordings to test the common hypothesis that this component is generated in the caudal anterior cingulate cortex. The EEG results indicated that our paradigm, a time estimation task with trial-to-trial performance feedback, elicited a large feedback-related negativity (FRN). Nevertheless, the fMRI results did not reveal any area in the caudal anterior cingulate cortex that was differentially activated by positive and negative performance feedback, casting doubt on the notion that the FRN is generated in this brain region. In contrast, we found a number of brain areas outside the posterior medial frontal cortex that were activated more strongly by positive feedback than by negative feedback. These included areas in the rostral anterior cingulate cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, right superior frontal gyrus, and striatum. An anatomically constrained source model assuming equivalent dipole generators in the rostral anterior cingulate, posterior cingulate, and right superior frontal gyrus produced a simulated scalp distribution that corresponded closely to the observed scalp distribution of the FRN. These results support a new hypothesis regarding the neural generators of the FRN, and have important implications for the use of this component as an electrophysiological index of performance monitoring and reward processing.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3161-3168
Number of pages8
JournalEuropean Journal of Neuroscience
Issue number11
Early online date24 Jun 2005
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2005


  • Adult
  • Biofeedback, Psychology/physiology
  • Brain Mapping
  • Cerebral Cortex/anatomy & histology
  • Cognition/physiology
  • Corpus Striatum/anatomy & histology
  • Electroencephalography
  • Emotions/physiology
  • Evoked Potentials/physiology
  • Female
  • Functional Laterality/physiology
  • Gyrus Cinguli/anatomy & histology
  • Humans
  • Judgment/physiology
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Models, Neurological
  • Motivation
  • Prefrontal Cortex/anatomy & histology
  • Reinforcement (Psychology)
  • Reward


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