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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Nucleus accumbens core lesions retard instrumental learning and performance with delayed reinforcement in the rat

Rudolf N Cardinal1* and Timothy HC Cheung12

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3EB, UK

2 Psychopharmacology Section, Division of Psychiatry, B Floor, Medical School, Queen's Medical Centre, Nottingham NG7 2UH, UK

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BMC Neuroscience 2005, 6:9  doi:10.1186/1471-2202-6-9

Published: 3 February 2005

Abstract

Background

Delays between actions and their outcomes severely hinder reinforcement learning systems, but little is known of the neural mechanism by which animals overcome this problem and bridge such delays. The nucleus accumbens core (AcbC), part of the ventral striatum, is required for normal preference for a large, delayed reward over a small, immediate reward (self-controlled choice) in rats, but the reason for this is unclear. We investigated the role of the AcbC in learning a free-operant instrumental response using delayed reinforcement, performance of a previously-learned response for delayed reinforcement, and assessment of the relative magnitudes of two different rewards.

Results

Groups of rats with excitotoxic or sham lesions of the AcbC acquired an instrumental response with different delays (0, 10, or 20 s) between the lever-press response and reinforcer delivery. A second (inactive) lever was also present, but responding on it was never reinforced. As expected, the delays retarded learning in normal rats. AcbC lesions did not hinder learning in the absence of delays, but AcbC-lesioned rats were impaired in learning when there was a delay, relative to sham-operated controls. All groups eventually acquired the response and discriminated the active lever from the inactive lever to some degree. Rats were subsequently trained to discriminate reinforcers of different magnitudes. AcbC-lesioned rats were more sensitive to differences in reinforcer magnitude than sham-operated controls, suggesting that the deficit in self-controlled choice previously observed in such rats was a consequence of reduced preference for delayed rewards relative to immediate rewards, not of reduced preference for large rewards relative to small rewards. AcbC lesions also impaired the performance of a previously-learned instrumental response in a delay-dependent fashion.

Conclusions

These results demonstrate that the AcbC contributes to instrumental learning and performance by bridging delays between subjects' actions and the ensuing outcomes that reinforce behaviour.