Reinforcement learning, which implicates learning from the rewarding and punishing outcomes of our choices, is critical for adjusted behaviour. Acute stress seems to affect this ability but the neural mechanisms by which it disrupts this type of learning are still poorly understood. Here, we investigate whether and how acute stress blunts neural signalling of prediction errors during reinforcement learning using model-based functional magnetic resonance imaging. Male participants completed a well-established reinforcement learning task involving monetary gains and losses whilst under stress and control conditions. Acute stress impaired participants’ behavioural performance towards obtaining monetary gains, but not towards avoiding losses. Importantly, acute stress blunted signalling of prediction errors during gain and loss trials in the dorsal striatum — with subsidiary analyses suggesting that acute stress preferentially blunted signalling of positive prediction errors. Our results thus reveal a neurocomputational mechanism by which acute stress may impair reward learning.
bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience