Actor-critic models of the basal ganglia: new anatomical and computational perspectives

Daphna Joel, Yael Niv, Eytan Ruppin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

342 Scopus citations


A large number of computational models of information processing in the basal ganglia have been developed in recent years. Prominent in these are actor-critic models of basal ganglia functioning, which build on the strong resemblance between dopamine neuron activity and the temporal difference prediction error signal in the critic, and between dopamine-dependent long-term synaptic plasticity in the striatum and learning guided by a prediction error signal in the actor. We selectively review several actor-critic models of the basal ganglia with an emphasis on two important aspects: the way in which models of the critic reproduce the temporal dynamics of dopamine firing, and the extent to which models of the actor take into account known basal ganglia anatomy and physiology. To complement the efforts to relate basal ganglia mechanisms to reinforcement learning (RL), we introduce an alternative approach to modeling a critic network, which uses Evolutionary Computation techniques to 'evolve' an optimal RL mechanism, and relate the evolved mechanism to the basic model of the critic. We conclude our discussion of models of the critic by a critical discussion of the anatomical plausibility of implementations of a critic in basal ganglia circuitry, and conclude that such implementations build on assumptions that are inconsistent with the known anatomy of the basal ganglia. We return to the actor component of the actor-critic model, which is usually modeled at the striatal level with very little detail. We describe an alternative model of the basal ganglia which takes into account several important, and previously neglected, anatomical and physiological characteristics of basal ganglia-thalamocortical connectivity and suggests that the basal ganglia performs reinforcement-biased dimensionality reduction of cortical inputs. We further suggest that since such selective encoding may bias the representation at the level of the frontal cortex towards the selection of rewarded plans and actions, the reinforcement-driven dimensionality reduction framework may serve as a basis for basal ganglia actor models. We conclude with a short discussion of the dual role of the dopamine signal in RL and in behavioral switching.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)535-547
Number of pages13
JournalNeural Networks
Issue number4-6
StatePublished - 2002
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


  • Actor-critic
  • Basal ganglia
  • Behavioral switching
  • Dimensionality reduction
  • Dopamine
  • Evolutionary computation
  • Reinforcement learning
  • Striosomes/patches


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