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Journal Article

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


Kühnel,  Anne
Dept. Translational Research in Psychiatry, Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry, Max Planck Society;

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Kühnel, A., Teckentrup, V., Neuser, M. P., Huys, Q. J. M., Burrasch, C., Walter, M., et al. (2020). Stimulation of the vagus nerve reduces learning in a go/no-go reinforcement learning task. EUROPEAN NEUROPSYCHOPHARMACOLOGY, 35, 17-29. doi:10.1016/j.euroneuro.2020.03.023.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-0008-BC54-6
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 (Delta alpha = -0.092, p(boot) = .002), particularly after punishment (Delta alpha(Pun) = -0.081, p(boot) = .012 vs. Delta alpha(Rew) = -0.031, p(boot) = .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. (C) 2020 Elsevier B.V. and ECNP. All rights reserved.