The adaptive adjustment of behavior in pursuit of desired goals is critical for survival. To accomplish this complex feat, individuals must weigh the potential benefits of a given course of action against time, energy, and resource costs. Prior research in this domain has greatly advanced understanding of the cortico-striatal circuits that support the anticipation and receipt of desired outcomes, characterizing core aspects of subjective valuation at discrete points in time. However, motivated goal pursuit is not a static or cost neutral process and the brain mechanisms that underlie individual differences in the dynamic updating of effort expenditure across time remain unclear. Here, 38 healthy right-handed participants underwent functional MRI (fMRI) while completing a novel paradigm to examine their willingness to exert physical effort over a prolonged trial, either to obtain monetary rewards or avoid punishments. During sustained goal pursuit, medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) response scaled with trial-to-trial differences in effort expenditure as a function of both monetary condition and eventual task earnings. Multivariate pattern analysis (MVPA) searchlights were used to examine relations linking prior trial-level effort expenditure to subsequent brain responses to feedback. At reward feedback, whole-brain searchlights identified signals reflecting past effort expenditure in dorsal and ventral mPFC, encompassing broad swaths of frontoparietal and dorsal attention networks. These results suggest a core role for mPFC in scaling effort expenditure during sustained goal pursuit, with the subsequent tracking of effort costs following successful goal attainment extending to incorporate distributed brain networks that support executive functioning and externally oriented attention.
bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience