- Reliance on habits at the expense of goal-directed control following dopamine precursor depletion
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- Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences (FMG)
- Psychology Research Institute (PsyRes)
Dopamine is well known to play an important role in learning and motivation. Recent animal studies have implicated dopamine in the reinforcement of stimulus-response habits, as well as in flexible, goal-directed action. However, the role of dopamine in human action control is still not well understood.
We present the first investigation of the effect of reducing dopamine function in healthy volunteers on the balance between habitual and goal-directed action control.
The dietary intervention of acute dietary phenylalanine and tyrosine depletion (APTD) was adopted to study the effects of reduced global dopamine function on action control. Participants were randomly assigned to either the APTD or placebo group (ns = 14) to allow for a between-subjects comparison of performance on a novel three-stage experimental paradigm. In the initial learning phase, participants learned to respond to different stimuli in order to gain rewarding outcomes. Subsequently, an outcome-devaluation test and a slips-of-action test were conducted to assess whether participants were able to flexibly adjust their behaviour to changes in the desirability of the outcomes.
APTD did not prevent stimulus-response learning, nor did we find evidence for impaired response-outcome learning in the subsequent outcome-devaluation test. However, when goal-directed and habitual systems competed for control in the slips-of-action test, APTD tipped the balance towards habitual control. These findings were restricted to female volunteers.
We provide direct evidence that the balance between goal-directed and habitual control in humans is dopamine dependent. The results are discussed in light of gender differences in dopamine function and psychopathologies.
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