Nucleus accumbens neurons track behavioral preferences and reward outcomes during risky decision making.
BACKGROUND: To make appropriate decisions, organisms must evaluate the risks and benefits of action selection. The nucleus accumbens (NAc) has been shown to be critical for this processing and is necessary for appropriate risk-based decision-making behavior. However, it is not clear how NAc neurons encode this information to promote appropriate behavioral responding. METHODS: Here, rats (n = 17) were trained to perform a risky decision-making task in which discrete visual cues predicted the availability to respond for a smaller certain (safer) or larger uncertain (riskier) reward. Electrophysiological recordings were made in the NAc core and shell to evaluate neural activity during task performance. RESULTS: At test, animals exhibited individual differences in risk-taking behavior; some displayed a preference for the risky option, some the safe option, and some did not have a preference. Electrophysiological analysis indicated that NAc neurons differentially encoded information related to risk versus safe outcomes. Further, during free choice trials, neural activity during reward-predictive cues reflected individual behavioral preferences. In addition, neural encoding of reward outcomes was correlated with risk-taking behavior, with safe-preferring and risk-preferring rats showing differential activity in the NAc core and shell during reward omissions. CONCLUSIONS: Consistent with previously demonstrated alterations in prospective reward value with effort and delay, NAc neurons encode information during reward-predictive cues and outcomes in a risk task that tracked the rats' preferred responses. This processing appears to contribute to subjective encoding of anticipated outcomes and thus may function to bias future risk-based decisions.