Anterior cingulate neurons in the rat map anticipated effort and reward to their associated action sequences

Stephen L. Cowen, Glen A. Davis, Douglas A. Nitz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

69 Scopus citations


Goal-directed behaviors require the consideration and expenditure of physical effort. The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) appears to play an important role in evaluating effort and reward and in organizing goal-directed actions. Despite agreement regarding the involvement of the ACC in these processes, the way in which effort-, reward-, and motor-related information is registered by networks of ACC neurons is poorly understood. To contrast ACC responses to effort, reward, and motor behaviors, we trained rats on a reversal task in which the selected paths on a track determined the level of effort or reward. Effort was presented in the form of an obstacle that was climbed to obtain reward. We used single-unit recordings to identify neural correlates of effort- and reward-guided behaviors. During periods of outcome anticipation, 52% of recorded ACC neurons responded to the specific route taken to the reward while 21% responded prospectively to effort and 12% responded prospectively to reward. In addition, effort- and reward-selective neurons typically responded to the route, suggesting that these cells integrated motor-related activity with expectations of future outcomes. Furthermore, the activity of ACC neurons did not discriminate between choice and forced trials or respond to a more generalized measure of outcome value. Nearly all neural responses to effort and reward occurred after path selection and were restricted to discrete temporal/spatial stages of the task. Together, these findings support a role for the ACC in integrating route-specific actions, effort, and reward in the service of sustaining discrete movements through an effortful series of goal-directed actions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2393-2407
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of neurophysiology
Issue number9
StatePublished - 2012


  • Decision making
  • Ensemble recording
  • Medial prefrontal cortex
  • Reversal learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience
  • Physiology


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