Hierarchical prediction errors in midbrain and septum during social learning

Diaconescu, A.O., Mathys, C., Weber, L.A.E. et al.

Social learning is fundamental to human interactions, yet its computational and physiological mechanisms are not well understood. One prominent open question concerns the role of neuromodulatory transmitters. We combined fMRI, computational modelling and genetics to address this question in two separate samples (N = 35, N = 47). Participants played a game requiring inference on an adviser’s intentions whose motivation to help or mislead changed over time. Our analyses suggest that hierarchically structured belief updates about current advice validity and the adviser’s trustworthiness, respectively, depend on different neuromodulatory systems. Low-level prediction errors (PEs) about advice accuracy not only activated regions known to support ‘theory of mind’, but also the dopaminergic midbrain. Furthermore, PE responses in ventral striatum were influenced by the Met/Val polymorphism of the Catechol-O-Methyltransferase (COMT) gene. By contrast, high-level PEs (‘expected uncertainty’) about the adviser’s fidelity activated the cholinergic septum. These findings, replicated in both samples, have important implications: They suggest that social learning rests on hierarchically related PEs encoded by midbrain and septum activity, respectively, in the same manner as other forms of learning under volatility. Furthermore, these hierarchical PEs may be broadcast by dopaminergic and cholinergic projections to induce plasticity specifically in cortical areas known to represent beliefs about others.


Diaconescu, A.O., Mathys, C., Weber, L.A.E. et al. "Hierarchical prediction errors in midbrain and septum during social learning" Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (2017): 618Stat5 deficiency decreases transcriptional heterogeneity and supports emergence of hematopoietic sub-populations34