Evidence for a neural law of effect. Science. 2018
Athalye VR, Santos FJ, Carmena JM, Costa RM.
Thorndike’s law of effect states that actions that lead to reinforcements tend to be repeated more often. Accordingly, neural activity patterns leading to reinforcement are also reentered more frequently. Reinforcement relies on dopaminergic activity in the ventral tegmental area (VTA), and animals shape their behavior to receive dopaminergic stimulation. Seeking evidence for a neural law of effect, we found that mice learn to reenter more frequently motor cortical activity patterns that trigger optogenetic VTA self-stimulation. Learning was accompanied by gradual shaping of these patterns, with participating neurons progressively increasing and aligning their covariance to that of the target pattern. Motor cortex patterns that lead to phasic dopaminergic VTA activity are progressively reinforced and shaped, suggesting a mechanism by which animals select and shape actions to reliably achieve reinforcement.