Transcranial Stimulation over Frontopolar Cortex Elucidates the Choice Attributes and Neural Mechanisms Used to Resolve Exploration-Exploitation Trade-Offs
Journal of Neuroscience
Optimal behavior requires striking a balance between exploiting tried-and-true options or exploring new possibilities. Neuroimaging studies have identified different brain regions in humans where neural activity is correlated with exploratory or exploitative behavior, but it is unclear whether this activity directly implements these choices or simply reflects a byproduct of the behavior. Moreover, it remains unknown whether arbitrating between exploration and exploitation can be influenced with
... be influenced with exogenous methods, such as brain stimulation. In our study, we addressed these questions by selectively upregulating and downregulating neuronal excitability with anodal or cathodal transcranial direct current stimulation over right frontopolar cortex during a reward-learning task. This caused participants to make slower, more exploratory or faster, more exploitative decisions, respectively. Bayesian computational modeling revealed that stimulation affected how much participants took both expected and obtained rewards into account when choosing to exploit or explore: Cathodal stimulation resulted in an increased focus on the option expected to yield the highest payout, whereas anodal stimulation led to choices that were less influenced by anticipated payoff magnitudes and were more driven by recent negative reward prediction errors. These findings suggest that exploration is triggered by a neural mechanism that is sensitive to prior less-than-expected choice outcomes and thus pushes people to seek out alternative courses of action. Together, our findings establish a parsimonious neurobiological mechanism that causes exploration and exploitation, and they provide new insights into the choice features used by this mechanism to direct decision-making.