Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
According to the reinforcement learning account of the error-related negativity (ERN), the ERN is a manifestation of a signal generated in ACC as a consequence of a phasic decrease in the activity of the mesencephalic dopamine system occurring when the monitoring system evaluates events as worse than expected. This signal is also hypothesized to be used to modify behavior to ascertain that future events will have better outcomes. It is therefore expected that this signal be correlated with learning outcomes. We report a study designed to examine the extent to which the ERN is related to learning outcomes within a paired-associates learning task. The feedback-related negativity (FRN) elicited by stimuli that indicated to the participants whether their response was correct or not was examined both according the degree to which the associates were learned in the session and according to whether participants recalled the associations on the next day. The results of the spatio-temporal PCA indicate that, whereas the process giving rise to the negative feedback elicited a FRN whose amplitude was not correlated with long-term learning outcomes, positive feedback was associated with a FRN-like activity, which was correlated with the learning outcomes. Another ERP component that follows the FRN temporally and shares its spatial distribution was found associated with long-term learning outcomes. Our findings shed light on the functional significance of the feedback-related ERP components and are discussed within the framework of the reinforcement learning ERN hypothesis.