Frontostriatal anatomical connections predict age- and difficulty-related differences in reinforcement learning.

Neurobiology of aging

PubMedID: 27460144

van de Vijver I, Ridderinkhof KR, Harsay H, Reneman L, Cavanagh JF, Buitenweg JI, Cohen MX. Frontostriatal anatomical connections predict age- and difficulty-related differences in reinforcement learning. Neurobiol Aging. 2016;461-12.
Reinforcement learning (RL) is supported by a network of striatal and frontal cortical structures that are connected through white-matter fiber bundles. With age, the integrity of these white-matter connections declines. The role of structural frontostriatal connectivity in individual and age-related differences in RL is unclear, although local white-matter density and diffusivity have been linked to individual differences in RL. Here we show that frontostriatal tract counts in young human adults (aged 18-28), as assessed noninvasively with diffusion-weighted magnetic resonance imaging and probabilistic tractography, positively predicted individual differences in RL when learning was difficult (70% valid feedback). In older adults (aged 63-87), in contrast, learning under both easy (90% valid feedback) and difficult conditions was predicted by tract counts in the same frontostriatal network. Furthermore, network-level analyses showed a double dissociation between the task-relevant networks in young and older adults, suggesting that older adults relied on different frontostriatal networks than young adults to obtain the same task performance. These results highlight the importance of successful information integration across striatal and frontal regions during RL, especially with variable outcomes.