Current theories hypothesize that dopamine neuronal firing encodes reward prediction errors. Although studies in nonhuman species provide direct support for this theory, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies in humans have focused on brain areas targeted by dopamine neurons [ventral striatum (VStr)] rather than on brainstem dopaminergic nuclei [ventral tegmental area (VTA) and substantia nigra]. We used fMRI tailored to directly image the brainstem. When primary rewards were used in an experiment, the VTA blood oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) response reflected a positive reward prediction error, whereas the VStr encoded positive and negative reward prediction errors. When monetary gains and losses were used, VTA BOLD responses reflected positive reward prediction errors modulated by the probability of winning. We detected no significant VTA BOLD response to nonrewarding events.
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