Trisha Shetty (Editor)

Reward system

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Reward system

The reward system is a group of neural structures responsible for incentive salience (i.e., motivation and "wanting", desire, or craving for a reward), associative learning (primarily positive reinforcement and classical conditioning), and positive emotions, particularly ones which involve pleasure as a core component (e.g., joy, euphoria and ecstasy). Reward is the attractive and motivational property of a stimulus that induces appetitive behavior – also known as approach behavior – and consummatory behavior. In its description of a rewarding stimulus (i.e., "a reward"), a review on reward neuroscience noted, "any stimulus, object, event, activity, or situation that has the potential to make us approach and consume it is by definition a reward." In operant conditioning, rewarding stimuli function as positive reinforcers; however, the converse statement also holds true: positive reinforcers are rewarding.


Primary rewards are those necessary for the survival of one's self and offspring, and include homeostatic (e.g., palatable food) and reproductive (e.g., sexual contact and parental investment) rewards. Intrinsic rewards are unconditioned rewards that are attractive and motivate behavior because they are inherently pleasurable. Extrinsic rewards (e.g., money) are conditioned rewards that are attractive and motivate behavior, but are not inherently pleasurable. Extrinsic rewards derive their motivational value as a result of a learned association (i.e., conditioning) with intrinsic rewards. Extrinsic rewards may also elicit pleasure (e.g., from winning a lot of money in a lottery) after being classically conditioned with intrinsic rewards.

Survival for most animal species depends upon maximizing contact with beneficial stimuli and minimizing contact with harmful stimuli. Reward cognition serves to increase the likelihood of survival and reproduction by causing associative learning, eliciting approach and consummatory behavior, and triggering positive emotions. Thus, reward is a mechanism that evolved to help increase the adaptive fitness of animals.


In neuroscience, the reward system is a collection of brain structures and neural pathways that are responsible for reward-related cognition, including associative learning (primarily classical conditioning and operant reinforcement), incentive salience (i.e., motivation and "wanting", desire, or craving for a reward), and positive emotions, particularly emotions that involve pleasure (i.e., hedonic "liking").

Terms that are commonly used to describe behavior related to the "wanting" or desire component of reward include appetitive behavior, preparatory behavior, instrumental behavior, anticipatory behavior, and seeking. Terms that are commonly used to describe behavior related to the "liking" or pleasure component of reward include consummatory behavior and taking behavior.

The three primary functions of rewards are their capacity to:

  1. produce associative learning (i.e., classical conditioning and operant reinforcement);
  2. affect decision-making and induce approach behavior (via the assignment of motivational salience to rewarding stimuli);
  3. elicit positive emotions, particularly pleasure.


The brain structures that compose the reward system are located primarily within the cortico-basal ganglia-thalamo-cortical loop; the basal ganglia portion of the loop drives activity within the reward system. Most of the pathways that connect structures within the reward system are glutamatergic interneurons, GABAergic medium spiny neurons, and dopaminergic projection neurons, although other types of projection neurons contribute (e.g., orexinergic projection neurons). The reward system includes the ventral tegmental area, ventral striatum (i.e., the nucleus accumbens and olfactory tubercle), dorsal striatum (i.e., the caudate nucleus and putamen), substantia nigra (i.e., the pars compacta and pars reticulata), prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, insular cortex, hippocampus, hypothalamus (particularly, the orexinergic nucleus in the lateral hypothalamus), thalamus (multiple nuclei), subthalamic nucleus, globus pallidus (both external and internal), ventral pallidum, parabrachial nucleus, amygdala, and the remainder of the extended amygdala. The dorsal raphe nucleus and cerebellum appear to modulate some forms of reward-related cognition (i.e., associative learning, motivational salience, and positive emotions) and behaviors as well.

Most of the dopamine pathways (i.e., neurons that use the neurotransmitter dopamine to communicate with other neurons) that project out of the ventral tegmental area are part of the reward system; in these pathways, dopamine acts on D1-like receptors or D2-like receptors to either stimulate (D1-like) or inhibit (D2-like) the production of cAMP. The GABAergic medium spiny neurons of the striatum are components of the reward system as well. The glutamatergic projection nuclei in the subthalamic nucleus, prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, thalamus, and amygdala connect to other parts of the reward system via glutamate pathways. The medial forebrain bundle, which is a set of many neural pathways that mediate brain stimulation reward (i.e., reward derived from direct electrochemical stimulation of the lateral hypothalamus), is also a component of the reward system.

After nearly 50 years of research on brain-stimulation reward, experts have certified that dozens of sites in the brain will maintain intracranial self-stimulation. Regions include the lateral hypothalamus and medial forebrain bundles are especially effective. Stimulation there activities fibers that form the ascending pathways; the ascending pathways include the mesolimbic dopamine pathway which projects from the ventral tegmental area to the nucleus accumbens. There are several explanations as to why the mesolimbic dopamine pathway is central to circuits mediating reward. First, there is a marked increase in dopamine release from the mesolimbic pathway when animals engage in intracranial self-stimulation. Second, experiments consistently indicate that brain-stimulation reward stimulates the reinforcement pathways that are normally activated by natural rewards, and drug reward or intracranial self-stimulation can exert more powerful activation of central reward mechanisms because they activate the reward center directly rather than through the peripheral nerves. Third, when animals are administered addictive drugs or engage in naturally rewarding behaviors, such as feeding or sexual activity, there is a marked release of dopamine within the nucleus accumbens. However, dopamine is not the only reward compound in the brain.

Pleasure centers

Pleasure is a component of reward, but not all rewards are pleasurable (e.g., money does not elicit pleasure unless this response is conditioned). Stimuli that are naturally pleasurable, and therefore attractive, are known as intrinsic rewards, whereas stimuli that are attractive and motivate approach behavior, but are not inherently pleasurable, are termed extrinsic rewards. Extrinsic rewards (e.g., money) are rewarding as a result of a learned association with an intrinsic reward. In other words, extrinsic rewards function as motivational magnets that elicit "wanting", but not "liking" reactions once they have been acquired.

The reward system contains pleasure centers or hedonic hotspots – i.e., brain structures that mediate pleasure or "liking" reactions from intrinsic rewards. As of May 2015 hedonic hotspots have been identified in subcompartments within the nucleus accumbens shell, ventral pallidum, and parabrachial nucleus of the pons; the insular cortex and orbitofrontal cortex likely contain hedonic hotspots as well. Opioid and endocannabinoid, but not dopamine, injections in the ventrorostral region of the nucleus accumbens are able to increase liking, while injection in other regions may produce aversion or wanting, as dopamine microinjections do.

The simultaneous activation of every hedonic hotspot within the reward system is believed to be necessary for generating the sensation of an intense euphoria.


Incentive salience is the "wanting" or "desire" attribute, which includes a motivational component, that is assigned to a rewarding stimulus by substructure within the nucleus accumbens shell (NAcc shell). The degree of dopamine neurotransmission into the NAcc shell from the mesolimbic pathway is highly correlated with the magnitude of incentive salience for rewarding stimuli.

Activation of the dorsorostral region of the nucleus accumbens correlates with increases in wanting without concurrent increases in liking. However, the dopaminergic neurotransmission into the nucleus accumbens shell is not only responsible for appetitive motivational salience (i.e., incentive salience) towards rewarding stimuli, but also for aversive motivational salience, which directs behavior away from undesirable stimuli. D1-type medium spiny neurons within the NAcc shell confer incentive salience for rewarding stimuli, while D2-type medium spiny neurons within the NAcc shell confer aversive motivational salience for undesirable stimuli.

Robinson and Berridge's (1993) incentive-sensitization theory proposed that reward contains separable psychological components - wanting (incentive) and liking (pleasure). To explain increasing contact with a certain stimulus such as chocolate, there are two independent factors at work - our desire to have the chocolate (wanting) and the pleasure effect of the chocolate (liking). According to Robinson and Berridge, wanting and liking are two aspects of the same process, so rewards are usually wanted and liked to the same degree. However, wanting and liking also change independently under certain circumstances. For example, rats that do not eat after receiving dopamine pathway (a loss of desire for food) act as though they still like food. Also, self-stimulation electrode in the lateral hypothalamus of a rat increases its appetite when the stimulation is on, but the rat reacts more aversively to tastes such as sugar and salt than when the stimulation is off. Apparently, the stimulation increases wanting but not liking. Such results demonstrate that our reward system includes independent processes of wanting and liking. The wanting component is thought to be controlled by dopaminergic pathways, whereas the liking component is thought to be controlled by opiate-benzodiazepine systems.

Animals vs. humans

Animals quickly learn to press a bar to obtain an injection of opiates directly into the midbrain tegmentum or the nucleus accumbens. The same animals do not work to obtain the opiates if the dopaminergic neurons of the mesolimbic pathway are inactivated. In this perspective, animals, like humans, engage in behaviors that increase dopamine release.

Kent Berridge, a researcher in affective neuroscience, found that sweet (liked) and bitter (disliked) taste produced distinct orofacial expressions, and these expressions were similarly displayed by human newborns, orangutans, and rats. This was evidence that pleasure (specifically, liking) has objective features and was essentially the same in various animals. Most neuroscience studies have shown that the more dopamine released by the reward, the more effective the reward is. This is called the hedonic impact, which can be changed by the effort for the reward and the reward itself. Berridge discovered that blocking dopamine systems did not seem to change the positive reaction, measured by facial expression, to something sweet. In other words, the hedonic impact did not change based on the amount of sugar. This discounted the conventional assumption that dopamine mediates pleasure. Even with more intense dopamine alterations, the data seemed to remain constant. Berridge developed the incentive salience hypothesis to addresses the wanting aspect of rewards. It explains the compulsive use of drugs by drug addicts even when the drug no longer produces euphoria, as well as the cravings experienced even after the individual has finished going through withdrawal. Some addicts respond to certain stimuli involving neural changes caused by drugs. This sensitization in the brain is similar to the effect of dopamine because wanting and liking reactions occur. Human and animal brains and behaviors experience similar changes regarding reward systems because they both are so prominent.


The first clue to the presence of a reward system in the brain came with an accident discovery by James Olds and Peter Milner in 1954. They discovered that rats would perform behaviors such as pressing a bar, to administer a brief burst of electrical stimulation to specific sites in their brains.This phenomenon is called intracranial self-stimulation or brain stimulation reward. Typically, rats will press a lever hundreds or thousands of times per hour to obtain this brain stimulation, stopping when only they are exhausted. While trying to teach rats how to solve problems and run mazes, stimulation of certain regions of the brain where the stimulation was found seemed to give pleasure to the animals. They tried the same thing with humans and the results were similar. The explanation to why animals engage in a behavior that has no value to the survival of either themselves or their species is that the brain stimulation is activating the system underlying reward.

In a fundamental discovery made in 1954, researchers James Olds and Peter Milner found that low-voltage electrical stimulation of certain regions of the brain of the rat acted as a reward in teaching the animals to run mazes and solve problems. It seemed that stimulation of those parts of the brain gave the animals pleasure, and in later work humans reported pleasurable sensations from such stimulation. When rats were tested in Skinner boxes where they could stimulate the reward system by pressing a lever, the rats pressed for hours. Research in the next two decades established that dopamine is one of the main chemicals aiding neural signaling in these regions, and dopamine was suggested to be the brain's "pleasure chemical".

Ivan Pavlov was a psychologist who used the reward system to study classical conditioning. Pavlov used the reward system by rewarding dogs with food after they had heard a bell or another stimulus. Pavlov was rewarding the dogs so that the dogs associated food, the reward, with the bell, the stimulus. Edward L. Thorndike used the reward system to study operant conditioning. He began by putting cats in a puzzle box and placing food outside of the box so that the cat wanted to escape. The cats worked to get out of the puzzle box to get to the food. Although the cats ate the food after they escaped the box, Thorndike learned that the cats attempted to escape the box without the reward of food. Thorndike used the rewards of food and freedom to stimulate the reward system of the cats. Thorndike used this to see how the cats learned to escape the box.


ΔFosB (delta FosB), a gene transcription factor, is the common factor among virtually all forms of addiction (behavioral addictions and drug addictions) that, when overexpressed in D1-type medium spiny neurons in the nucleus accumbens, induces addiction-related behavioral and neural plasticity; in particular, ΔFosB promotes self-administration, reward sensitization, and reward cross-sensitization effects among specific addictive drugs and behaviors.

Addictive drugs and addictive behaviors are rewarding and reinforcing (i.e., are addictive) due to their effects on the dopamine reward pathway.

The lateral hypothalamus and medial forebrain bundle has been the most frequently studied brain stimulation reward site, particularly in studies of the effects of drugs on brain stimulation reward. The neurotransmitter system that has been most clearly identified with the habit-forming actions of drugs of abuse is the mesolimbic dopamine system, with its efferent targets in nucleus accumbens and its local GABAergic afferents. The reward-relevant actions of amphetamine and cocaine are in the dopaminergic synapses of nucleus accumbens and perhaps the medial prefrontal cortex. Rats also learn to lever-press for cocaine injections into the medial prefrontal cortex, which works by increasing dopamine turnover in nucleus accumbens. Nicotine infused directly into nucleus accumbens also enhances local dopamine release, presumably by a presynaptic action on the dopaminergic terminals of this region. Nicotinic receptors localize to dopaminergic cell bodies and local nicotine injections increase dopaminergic cell firing that is critical for nicotinic reward. Some additional habit-forming drugs are also likely to decrease the output of medium spiny neurons as a consequence, despite activating dopaminergic projections. For opiate, the lowest threshold site for rewarding effects involves actions on GABAergic neurons in the ventral tegmental area; a secondary site of opiate rewarding actions on medium spiny output neurons of nucleus accumbens. Thus GABAergic afferents to the mesolimbic dopamine neurons (primary substrate of opiate reward), the mesolimbic dopamine neurons themselves (primary substrate of psychomotor stimulant reward), and GABAergic efferents to the mesolimbic dopamine neurons (a secondary site of opiate reward) form the core of currently characterized drug reward circuitry.


Reward system Wikipedia