To work or not to work: Neural representation of cost and benefit of instrumental action

N. B. Kroemer, C. Burrasch, L. Hellrung


By definition, instrumental actions are performed in order to obtain certain goals. Nevertheless, the attainment of goals typically implies obstacles, and response vigor is known to reflect an integration of subjective benefit and cost. Whereas several brain regions have been associated with cost/benefit ratio decision-making, trial-by-trial fluctuations in motivation are not well understood. We review recent evidence supporting the motivational implications of signal fluctuations in the mesocorticolimbic system. As an extension of “set-point” theories of instrumental action, we propose that response vigor is determined by a rapid integration of brain signals that reflect value and cost on a trial-by-trial basis giving rise to an online estimate of utility. Critically, we posit that fluctuations in key nodes of the network can predict deviations in response vigor and that variability in instrumental behavior can be accounted for by models devised from optimal control theory, which incorporate the effortful control of noise. Notwithstanding, the post hoc analysis of signaling dynamics has caveats that can effectively be addressed in future research with the help of two novel fMRI imaging techniques. First, adaptive fMRI paradigms can be used to establish a time–order relationship, which is a prerequisite for causality, by using observed signal fluctuations as triggers for stimulus presentation. Second, real-time fMRI neurofeedback can be employed to induce predefined brain states that may facilitate benefit or cost aspects of instrumental actions. Ultimately, understanding temporal dynamics in brain networks subserving response vigor holds the promise for targeted interventions that could help to readjust the motivational balance of behavior.
Original languageEnglish
JournalProgress in Brain Research
Pages (from-to)125-157
Number of pages33
Publication statusPublished - 2016

Research Areas and Centers

  • Academic Focus: Center for Brain, Behavior and Metabolism (CBBM)


Dive into the research topics of 'To work or not to work: Neural representation of cost and benefit of instrumental action'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this