Computational Psychiatry & Decision-making

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  • doi pdf Stimulation of the vagus nerve reduces learning in a go/no-go reinforcement learning task
  • Kuehnel A, Teckentrup V, Neuser MP, Huys QJM, Burrasch C, Walter M, Kroemer NB
  • biorXiv (2019)
  • When facing decisions to approach rewards or to avoid punishments, we often figuratively go with our gut, and the impact of metabolic states such as hunger on motivation are well documented. However, whether and how vagal feedback signals from the gut influence instrumental actions is unknown. Here, we investigated the effect of non-invasive transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation (tVNS) vs. sham (randomized cross-over design) on approach and avoidance behavior using an established go/no-go reinforcement learning paradigm (Guitart-Masip et al., 2012) in 39 healthy, participants after an overnight fast. First, mixed-effects logistic regression analysis of choice accuracy showed that tVNS acutely impaired decision-making, p = .045. Computational reinforcement learning models identified the cause of this as a reduction in the learning rate through tVNS (## = -0.092, pboot = .002), particularly after punishment (##Pun = -0.081, pboot = .012 vs. ##Rew = -0.031, p = .22). However, tVNS had no effect on go biases, Pavlovian response biases or response time. Hence, tVNS appeared to influence learning rather than action execution. These results highlight a novel role of vagal afferent input in modulating reinforcement learning by tuning the learning rate according to homeostatic needs.