Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience

, Volume 18, Issue 5, pp 949–963 | Cite as

Electrophysiological measures reveal the role of anterior cingulate cortex in learning from unreliable feedback

  • Peng Li
  • Weiwei Peng
  • Hong LiEmail author
  • Clay B. Holroyd


Although a growing number of studies have investigated the neural mechanisms of reinforcement learning, it remains unclear how the brain responds to feedback that is unreliable. A recent theory proposes that the reward positivity (RewP) component of the event-related brain potential (ERP) and frontal midline theta (FMT) power reflect separate feedback-related processing functions of anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). In the present study, the electroencephalogram (EEG) was recorded from participants as they engaged in a time estimation task in which feedback reliability was manipulated across conditions. After each response, they received a cue that indicated that the following feedback stimulus was 100%, 75%, or 50% reliable. The results showed that participants’ time estimates adjusted linearly according to the feedback reliability. Moreover, presentation of the cue indicating 100% reliability elicited a larger RewP-like ERP component than the other cues did, and feedback presentation elicited a RewP of approximately equal amplitude for all of the three reliability conditions. By contrast, FMT power elicited by negative feedback decreased linearly from the 100% condition to 75% and 50% condition, and only FMT power predicted behavioral adjustments on the following trials. In addition, an analysis of Beta power and cross-frequency coupling (CFC) of Beta power with FMT phase suggested that Beta-FMT communication modulated motor areas for the purpose of adjusting behavior. We interpreted these findings in terms of the hierarchical reinforcement learning account of ACC, in which the RewP and FMT are proposed to reflect reward processing and control functions of ACC, respectively.


Frontal midline theta Reward positivity Anterior cingulate cortex Feedback reliability 



This study was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (31671158 & 31671150), the (Key) Project of DEGP (2015WTSCX094), Shenzhen Peacock Plan (grant no. KQTD2015033016104926), and the youth Project of Humanities and Social Sciences of Shenzhen University (16QNFC51).

Supplementary material

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Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Peng Li
    • 1
    • 2
  • Weiwei Peng
    • 1
  • Hong Li
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
    Email author
  • Clay B. Holroyd
    • 4
  1. 1.Brain Function and Psychological Science Research CenterShenzhen UniversityShenzhenChina
  2. 2.Shenzhen Key Laboratory of Affective and Social Cognitive ScienceShenzhen UniversityShenzhenChina
  3. 3.Center for Language and BrainShenzhen Institute of NeuroscienceShenzhenChina
  4. 4.Department of PsychologyUniversity of VictoriaVictoriaCanada

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