tVNS reduces learning in a go/no-go reinforcement learning task.

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Stimulation of the vagus nerve reduces learning in a go/no-go reinforcement learning task.

Abstract
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 auricular vagus nerve stimulation (taVNS) vs. sham (randomized cross-over design) on approach and avoidance behavior using an established go/no-go reinforcement learning paradigm in 39 healthy human participants (23 female) after an overnight fast. First, mixed-effects logistic regression analysis of choice accuracy showed that taVNS acutely impaired decision-making, p = .041. Computational reinforcement learning models identified the cause of this as a reduction in the learning rate through taVNS (∆α = -0.092, pboot = .002), particularly after punishment (∆αPun = -0.081, pboot = .012 vs. ∆αRew =-0.031, pboot = .22). However, taVNS had no effect on go biases, Pavlovian response biases or response time. Hence, taVNS 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.

PMID: 32404279 [PubMed – as supplied by publisher]

Eur Neuropsychopharmacol. 2020 May 10;:

Authors: Kühnel A, Teckentrup V, Neuser MP, Huys QJM, Burrasch C, Walter M, Kroemer NB

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