The adaptive regulation of the trade-off between pursuing a known reward (exploitation) and sampling lesser-known options in search of something better (exploration) is critical for optimal performance. Theory and recent empirical work suggest that humans use at least two strategies for solving this dilemma: a directed strategy in which choices are explicitly biased toward information seeking, and a random strategy in which decision noise leads to exploration by chance. Here we examined the hypothesis that random exploration is governed by the neuromodulatory locus coeruleus-norepinephrine system. We administered atomoxetine, a norepinephrine transporter blocker that increases extracellular levels of norepinephrine throughout the cortex, to 22 healthy human participants in a double-blind crossover design. We examined the effect of treatment on performance in a gambling task designed to produce distinct measures of directed exploration and random exploration. In line with our hypothesis we found an effect of atomoxetine on random, but not directed exploration. However, contrary to expectation, atomoxetine reduced rather than increased random exploration. We offer three potential explanations of our findings, involving the non-linear relationship between tonic NE and cognitive performance, the interaction of atomoxetine with other neuromodulators, and the possibility that atomoxetine affected phasic norepinephrine activity more so than tonic norepinephrine activity.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
- Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)