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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

From uncertainty to reward: BOLD characteristics differentiate signaling pathways

Birgit Abler*, Bärbel Herrnberger, Georg Grön and Manfred Spitzer

Author Affiliations

Department of Psychiatry, University of Ulm, Leimgrubenweg 12-14, 89075 Ulm, Germany

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BMC Neuroscience 2009, 10:154  doi:10.1186/1471-2202-10-154

Published: 22 December 2009



Reward value and uncertainty are represented by dopamine neurons in monkeys by distinct phasic and tonic firing rates. Knowledge about the underlying differential dopaminergic pathways is crucial for a better understanding of dopamine-related processes. Using functional magnetic resonance blood-oxygen level dependent (BOLD) imaging we analyzed brain activation in 15 healthy, male subjects performing a gambling task, upon expectation of potential monetary rewards at different reward values and levels of uncertainty.


Consistent with previous studies, ventral striatal activation was related to both reward magnitudes and values. Activation in medial and lateral orbitofrontal brain areas was best predicted by reward uncertainty. Moreover, late BOLD responses relative to trial onset were due to expectation of different reward values and likely to represent phasic dopaminergic signaling. Early BOLD responses were due to different levels of reward uncertainty and likely to represent tonic dopaminergic signals.


We conclude that differential dopaminergic signaling as revealed in animal studies is not only represented locally by involvement of distinct brain regions but also by distinct BOLD signal characteristics.