Working-memory capacity protects model-based learning from stress

A. Ross Otto, Candace M. Raio, Alice Chiang, Elizabeth A. Phelps, Nathaniel D. Daw

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

320 Scopus citations


Accounts of decision-making have long posited the operation of separate, competing valuation systems in the control of choice behavior. Recent theoretical and experimental advances suggest that this classic distinction between habitual and goal-directed (or more generally, automatic and controlled) choice may arise from two computational strategies for reinforcement learning, called model-free and model-based learning. Popular neurocomputational accounts of reward processing emphasize the involvement of the dopaminergic system in model-free learning and prefrontal, central executive-dependent control systems in model-based choice. Here we hypothesized that the hypothalamic- pituitaryadrenal (HPA) axis stress response - believed to have detrimental effects on prefrontal cortex function - should selectively attenuate model-based contributions to behavior. To test this, we paired an acute stressor with a sequential decision-making task that affords distinguishing the relative contributions of the two learning strategies. We assessed baseline working-memory (WM) capacity and used salivary cortisol levels to measure HPA axis stress response. We found that stress response attenuates the contribution of model-based, but not model-free, contributions to behavior. Moreover, stress-induced behavioral changes were modulated by individual WM capacity, such that low-WM-capacity individuals were more susceptible to detrimental stress effects than high-WMcapacity individuals. These results enrich existing accounts of the interplay between acute stress, working memory, and prefrontal function and suggest that executive function may be protective against the deleterious effects of acute stress.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)20941-20946
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number52
StatePublished - Dec 24 2013
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


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