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Logo of nihpaAbout Author manuscriptsSubmit a manuscriptHHS Public Access; Author Manuscript; Accepted for publication in peer reviewed journal;
J Cogn Neurosci. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2010 October 12.
Published in final edited form as:
PMCID: PMC2952834

A model of prefrontal cortical mechanisms for goal directed behavior


Many behavioral tasks require goal-directed actions to obtain delayed reward. The prefrontal cortex appears to mediate many aspects of goal-directed function. This paper presents a model of prefrontal cortex function emphasizing the influence of goal related activity on the choice of the next motor output. The model can be interpreted in terms of key elements of Reinforcement Learning theory. Different neocortical minicolumns represent distinct sensory input states and distinct motor output actions. The dynamics of each minicolumn include separate phases of encoding and retrieval. During encoding, strengthening of excitatory connections forms forward and reverse associations between each state, the following action, and a subsequent state, which may include reward. During retrieval, activity spreads from reward states throughout the network. The interaction of this spreading activity with a specific input state directs selection of the next appropriate action. Simulations demonstrate how these mechanisms can guide performance in a range of goal-directed tasks, and provide a functional framework for some of the neuronal responses previously observed in medial prefrontal cortex during performance of spatial memory tasks in rats.

Numerous behavioral tasks involve goal-directed behavior based upon a delayed reward. For example, a rat in an instrumental task must generate lever presses to obtain food reward (Corbit and Balleine, 2003; Killcross and Coutureau, 2003; Wyble et al., 2004), and a rat in a T-maze must run down the stem of the maze to obtain food reward in one arm of the maze (Jung et al., 1998; Wood et al., 2000; Baeg et al., 2003; Ferbinteanu and Shapiro, 2003). Lesions of the prefrontal cortex cause impairments in goal-directed behavior (Fuster, 1995; Miller and Cohen, 2001; Corbit and Balleine, 2003; Killcross and Coutureau, 2003), and prefrontal units show firing dependent upon the association of cues and future responses (Miller, 2000). The model presented here addresses how goal directed behavior can be mediated by populations of neurons.

An extensive theoretical framework termed Reinforcement Learning (Sutton, 1988; Sutton and Barto, 1998) describes how an agent can generate behaviors for delayed rewards in its environment. Current sensory input to the agent is represented by a “state” vector, and the output of the agent is represented by “actions” which alter the state vector (i.e., moving the agent to a different location). The selection of actions is guided by value functions (associating states with future reward) and state-action-value functions (associating actions in specific states with future reward). These functions are often learned using variants of temporal difference (TD) learning (Sutton, 1988; Sutton and Barto, 1998).

Research has focused on the similarity between the error term in TD learning and the activity of dopaminergic neurons (Montague et al., 1996; Schultz et al., 1997). The basal ganglia have been proposed to provide circuitry for computation of TD learning (Houk et al., 1995). Alternatives to TD learning have also been developed in models of the basal ganglia (Brown et al., 1999). Despite these links to biology, the mechanisms for many other aspects of Reinforcement Learning have not been analyzed. Most Reinforcement Learning models use simple look-up tables for the action-value function, without mapping these functions to the physiological properties of neurons. The state-action value mapping has been modeled with neural networks (Barto and Sutton, 1981; Zhu and Hammerstrom, 2003), but these hybrid models retain many algorithmic steps which are not implemented biologically.

In contrast, this paper focuses on obtaining goal-directed behavior using a neurobiological circuit model with all functions implemented by threshold units and modifiable synaptic connections. This model demonstrates how action selection could be computed by activity in prefrontal cortical circuits. The model does not focus on dopaminergic activity and does not explicitly use the TD learning rule. Instead, this model obtains effective action selection using interacting neurons, and demonstrates how specific circuit dynamics with local Hebbian rules for synaptic modification can provide functions similar to TD learning. The activity of individual neurons in the simulation is described in relationship to experimental data on prefrontal cortex unit firing in two different tasks: an open field task and a spatial alternation task in a T-maze (Jung et al., 1998; Wood et al., 2000; Baeg et al., 2003). This model demonstrates how the activity of prefrontal cortical units can be interpreted as elements of a functional circuit which guide the actions of an agent on the basis of delayed reward.


Overview of network function

The model presented here contains a repeated subcircuit (Figure 1) intended to represent a repeating functional unit of neocortical architecture, such as the minicolumn (Rao et al., 1999). Each local minicolumn includes a population of n input units, designated with the letter a, which receives input about the current state or the most recent action. Across the full model these units provide input to n minicolumns, forming a larger vector a (with size n*n). The vector a represents units in layer IV of cortical structures, which receive input from thalamic nuclei conveying information about sensory stimuli or proprioceptive feedback about an action, and also receive feedforward connections from cortical areas lower in the sensory hierarchy (Barbas and Pandya, 1989; Felleman and Van Essen, 1991; Scannell et al., 1995). The representations in this model are consistent with data showing that prefrontal cortex neurons respond to a range of behaviorally relevant sensory stimuli, motor outputs and reward (Schoenbaum and Eichenbaum, 1995; Jung et al., 1998; Schoenbaum et al., 1998; Schultz et al., 2000; Wallis et al., 2001; Mulder et al., 2003; Koene and Hasselmo, 2005).

Figure 1
Components of each model minicolumn. Each minicolumn has multiple units in vector a receiving input from thalamus about current sensory state or proprioceptive feedback about motor output (actions). The population gi receives input spreading back from ...

Each minicolumn contains four populations of units that mediate associations with other minicolumns activated at different time points (see Figure 1). The reverse spread of activity from the goal (reward) minicolumn is mediated by connections Wg, and forward associations from current input are mediated by Wc and Wo. Populations gi and go in each minicolumn are analogous to neurons in layers II and III (supragranular layers) in the neocortex, which have long range excitatory connections (Lewis et al., 2002). Population gi receives input spreading from the goal via connections Wg. Population go receives input from gi via internal connections Wig and sends output to other minicolumns via Wg. These connections link each action with preceding states, and each state with preceding actions.

Populations co and ci in each minicolumn are analogous to neurons in layers V and VI (infragranular layer) in the neocortex. These neurons have more localized connections and influence the cortical output to subcortical structures and lower levels of neocortex, consistent with the role of population co in regulating the output of the circuits in this model. Population ci receives input about the current state or action from other minicolumns, while population co receives input from population a in the same minicolumn, and sends output to other minicolumns and to the output vector o via connections Wo.

Each minicolumn receives inputs consisting of either sensory information from the environment (described with the term “state” in Reinforcement Learning) or proprioceptive feedback about specific motor actions performed (described with the term “action” in Reinforcement Learning). As shown in Figure 2, the network generates outputs which guide behavior of a virtual rat. During retrieval, the spread of activity within the network guides the selection of the next action of the virtual rat. Each output action causes input to specific minicolumns representing actions. The encoding of associations between actions and the preceding and following states occur during an encoding phase which is distinct from the retrieval phase which guides action selection. These separate phases could correspond to phases of oscillatory dynamics within cortical structures (Manns et al., 2000).

Figure 2
Retrieval activity in an example linear track task. Separate minicolumns represent the two actions "go West" and "go East", and the three states "West", "Center" and "East". One minicolumn represents goal (reward) in "East". The selection of output action ...

Example - Movement on a linear track

As an example, Figure 2 shows a model guiding movements of a rat on a linear track with reward provided consistently at one location (the "East" location). This resembles the Reinforcement Learning (RL) example of an agent in a gridworld environment (Sutton and Barto, 1998), and resembles tasks used for studying neuronal responses in the hippocampus (Gothard et al., 1996; Wyble et al., 2004). Here we use an allocentric representation of the state, but this framework can also be applied to egocentric representations.

This simple model consists of six minicolumns: three representing states (locations), two representing actions and one representing reward. The "states" are labelled West, Center and East in Figure 2, and provide input to three separate minicolumns. Each current "state" is represented by active elements in a. Here, the virtual rat has the option of two "actions" defined allocentrically, the actions "go West" and "go East". Actions are generated by an output population, a two-element vector o which guides the movements of the rat (see Figure 2). Proprioceptive feedback about the active output in vector o activates elements of vector a in the corresponding action minicolumn representing "go West" or "go East". The network also has a "reward" (goal) representation of the sensory input about food that becomes associated with physiological drive states such as hunger. The reward minicolumn is activated during encoding when food reward is first obtained, and provides the goal for selecting actions during retrieval. This example focuses on the retrieval process after encoding of the environment has been performed. The Methods section provides detailed equations for both the encoding and retrieval phases.

Retrieval provides action selection

The following mechanism provides action selection when the rat is at the location in the center of the environment. The goal state is activated by subcortical drive mechanisms, represented in the model by diffuse activation of the population goR in the reward minicolumn (filled circles in Figure 2). In Figure 2, activity spreads over connections Wg from the goR population in the "Reward" minicolumn to the input population gi in the "East" state minicolumn. These connections were strengthened during previous exploration of the environment (as described in the Methods section below), allowing units in go to activate a unit in gi. The activity spreads over internal connections Wig from population gi to population go in the "East" state minicolumn. The spread continues over Wg from go in the "East" minicolumn to gi in the "Go East" action minicolumn, then over Wig to go in the "Go East" action minicolumn and from there over Wg to gi in the "Center" state minicolumn. This continuous spread of activity traces possible reverse pathways from the goal back through sequences of states and actions leading to that goal.

The selection of an action depends upon the interaction of the spread from goal/reward with the input representing current state. The reverse spread from reward converges with input to the "Center" state minicolumn. Sensory input from the environment about the current state activates the units of a in the minicolumn representing the "center" state, which send diffuse subthreshold activity to population co in that minicolumn. Activity in population co depends upon the convergence of this subthreshold input with subthreshold input from the unit in gi which was activated by the reverse spread from reward. In Figure 2, this convergent input causes activity in unit 3 of population co in the "Center" state minicolumn, corresponding to the appropriate output "Go East". Previously strengthened connections Wo between this element of the population co and the output population causes activity in the "go East" output unit, as shown in Figure 2. The activity of the output unit causes the virtual rat to move to the goal in the "East" location. Thus, the retrieval process performs the correct action selection for approaching the goal.

Separate input and output populations for reverse spread are required due to repeated use of actions in multiple contexts. The same action could result in different outcomes dependent upon the starting state. For example, a "Go East" action could shift the state from West to Center, but also from Center to East. If there were only one population for both input and output, the network would map all inputs to every output. But with distinct populations of input and output populations, it is possible to make these mappings distinct. Minicolumn structure was chosen to be the same for both states and actions, just as the structure of neocortex appears similar throughout prefrontal cortex, where units respond to both sensory input and motor output (Fuster, 1995; Mulder et al., 2003).

Encoding creates necessary synaptic connectivity

The retrieval function described above depends upon prior modification of the appropriate pattern of connectivity in the synapses of the network. The process of encoding is summarized in Figures 8 and and99 and described in detail in the Methods section. The buffering of sensory input and timing of activity spread within the network allows encoding to occur with the time course of spike-timing dependent synaptic plasticity (Levy and Steward, 1983; Markram et al., 1997), which requires post-synaptic spikes to occur immediately after pre-synaptic spikes. Encoding and retrieval phases alternate continuously in the model during all stages of behavior. Retrieval activity does not occur during encoding because there is no subcortical input to population go in the model and therefore no reverse spread. Modification of synapses occurs selectively on the encoding phase, based on data on phasic changes in LTP induction during theta rhythm (Hyman et al., 2003). The effective learning of behavior results from an interaction of synaptic modification and the backward spread from goal, resulting in a function similar to that of temporal difference learning (TD learning).

Figure 8
Encoding of necessary connections between a state and the action randomly generated at this state. Each step of encoding is listed numerically. Ei. A buffer in the state minicolumn holds activity from previous input a(te-1). Eii. A randomly generated ...
Figure 9
Simple schematic illustration of the steps of synaptic modification during encoding. A. The network receives state input which activates a(te). B. An output action is generated randomly. The network receives proprioceptive feedback about the new action ...

The network starts with weak connectivity which does not generate learned actions. Outputs are initially generated randomly to move the animal from its prior location to a new location (state). Therefore, the initial encoding of the environment occurs as the virtual rat explores randomly, generating random sequences with a state followed by an action which leads to another state. As the encoding process strengthens synaptic connections, the network begins to perform effective goal-directed behavior, as summarized in simulation results below using MATLAB.

Simulation results

Goal finding on a linear track

The guidance of goal-directed behavior by the prefrontal cortex circuit model was tested in a range of different behavioral tasks. The first task utilized a linear track, with reward located at one end. The virtual rat starts at the West end of the track, searches until it finds the reward at the East end, and is immediately reset to the West end. Figure 3 shows the movements of the virtual rat as it learns optimal performance in the linear track. The states (locations) of the rat over time are plotted as black rectangles in the top 4 rows of the plot. During the initial time steps of the simulation, the virtual rat explores back and forth randomly along the linear track (both West and East movements), and obtains infrequent rewards. As connections are modified within the network, the virtual rat gradually learns to run directly from the starting position to the goal location on each trial, thereby obtaining frequent rewards as shown on the right side of Fig. 3. This gradual increase in goal directed behavior results from the increase in reverse spread from the goal location as the rat learns the task and excitatory reverse connections are strengthened. The spread of activity across these reverse connections allows consistent selection of the correct response which guides the virtual rat to the goal location.

Figure 3
Movements of the virtual rat during learning and performance of the simple linear track task. Black vertical bars in the top four rows show the states (locations West, Center1, Center2, East) of the virtual rat during different simulation time steps plotted ...

The simulations demonstrate that the encoding equations described in the Methods section allow formation of the necessary pattern of connectivity to encode potential pathways through the environment. The convergence of sensory state input with the reverse spread of activity allows selection of actions which result in movement along optimal pathways within the environment in most cases (though in some cases the network settles into non-optimal pathways). The effective goal-directed behavior can be seen in Figure 3, where the virtual rat learns to make Eastward movements only, thereby rapidly moving from the start location to the goal location and obtaining reward. The encoding process occurs during random exploration of the environment, so that the network does not have to be selectively structured for each environment, but can learn goal-directed behavior in a range of different environments.

Goal finding in an open field

The model can guide movement of the virtual rat in environments of arbitrary shape and size, with different goal locations and barriers similar to the gridworld examples used in Reinforcement Learning (Sutton and Barto, 1998; Foster et al., 2000). Exploration and effective performance in a two-dimensional environment can be seen in Figure 4. Here, the virtual rat starts in the middle left (location 4), searches until it finds the goal location in the middle right (location 6), and is reset to the start position when it finds the goal. The greater range of possible movements results in longer pathways during initial exploration (left side of Figures 4A and B1), but ultimately the virtual agent discovers the reward location and on subsequent trials eventually starts taking the shortest path between start location and reward (as seen on the right side of Figure 4B1). Across 15 simulated rats, this results in an increase in the mean number of rewards received per unit time, as shown in Figure 4B2.

Figure 4
Performance of the network over time in an open field task. A. The network starts out with random exploration, resulting in pathways with many steps between the start point and goal (non-optimal path). After effective encoding, retrieval guides movement ...

Note that these simulations use Equation E1b in the Methods section. In this equation, the activity of the go population during encoding depends on both the new state input and the reverse spread from the goal on the previous retrieval cycle. While this slows down learning, it actually results in much better overall performance, because strengthening of connectivity progresses backward from the goal location, so that the virtual rat is much more likely to find an optimal pathway. In contrast, use of the alternate Equation E1 results in faster convergence to a single pathway to the goal location, but this pathway is more likely to be non-optimal, because strengthening progresses forward from the start location without any dependence upon proximity to the goal location. The performance of the network with equation E1 is shown in Figure 4C. With equation E1, the network rapidly learns a single pathway to the goal (Figure 4C1), but this is usually a non-optimal pathway, and can just be a local loop. Across 15 rats, these effects result in a much poorer final average performance well below the optimal level (Fig. 4C2). In contrast, equation E1b results in the network finding the optimal pathway to reward in all cases (Figure 4B2). The encoding of the environment depends upon the relative amount of random exploration versus exploitation of previous encoding. Greater randomness of exploration in early stages results in a better learning of the environment, resulting in more optimal final behavior. However, this greater randomness results in slower learning and less initial reward. In a sense, greater speed of learning results in less complete understanding of the contingencies of the environment.

The speed of simulations slows down for larger numbers of states, but in real cortical circuits, the neuronal activity and synaptic weights would be computed in parallel, avoiding the sequential computation of large matrices. The sequential learning of states and actions may help to reduce the dimensionality of the matrices being learned. For transitions between n states, the network must modify n*n matrices, but transitions between n states and n' actions requires 2*n*n' connections, which could take advantage of the smaller dimensionality of actions. Learning of the task takes longer in a larger environment due to the time required to randomly encounter the goal and the intervening states. Future models should move beyond the location states used here. For example, in an open field a rat can see the goal location and approach it without needing to learn values for each intervening part of the open space. This may require multiple interacting representations of the environment which can simultaneously guide behavior, as in multiple models based Reinforcement Learning (Doya et al., 2002).

Comparison of model with temporal difference learning

The speed of learning of the prefrontal cortex model was compared to the speed of learning of a traditional actor critic model using temporal difference learning, as shown in Figure 5. This comparison was not performed with the expectation that the prefrontal cortex model would be faster. Instead, it was focused on determining whether the more biologically detailed implementation could attain learning at a behaviorally realistic rate. Real rats require multiple trials (and effective shaping by experimenters) to learn specific goal directed behaviors in an environment, consistent with the requirement in the simulation for multiple learning trials before optimal performance is obtained. As shown in Figure 5, the prefrontal cortex model could obtain effective function at about one half the rate of temporal difference learning. This was due to the incorporation of both state and action minicolumns into the network, requiring two steps of learning for each action selection, as opposed to the actor critic model where only one step of learning is necessary for each modification of action values at each state. The prefrontal model creates the connectivity necessary for action selection at each state with learning of associations between that state and each action, as well as connections from that action to the resulting subsequent state.

Figure 5
Comparison of neocortex circuit model with pure temporal difference learning. A. With both mechanisms, the virtual rat starts out taking long pathways to the goal and eventually learns the optimal pathway directly from start point to goal. B1. Example ...

Comparison of simulation with neurophysiological data

The structure of this simulation allows comparison with physiological data on the activity of neurons in the medial prefrontal cortex of rats performing spatial memory tasks, including movement in an open field task (Jung et al., 1998) and a spatial alternation task in a figure-8 maze (Jung et al., 1998; Baeg et al., 2003). Note that movement in the open field was done with one reward location, corresponding to exploration before finding of one food pellet during foraging. The activity of simulated neurons was plotted in the same manner as experimental data, with shading in a specific location indicating that the plotted neuron was active when the virtual rat was in that location. In Figure 6, the firing in the open field looks superficially as if it is place dependent, but most neurons do not respond on the basis of spatial location alone. This is similar to experimental data where few true place cells are found, and responses in specific locations are highly variable (Jung et al., 1998). Instead, the go neurons initially are active dependent on the prior movement into a particular state. For example, in Figure 6A, the unit codes a Northward movement into the Northwest (upper left) corner, but only fires after subsequent movements including Eastward or Southward movement. These simulations generate the specific experimental prediction that variability of neuronal responses in a specific spatial location should depend upon previous movements. Figure 6 shows that the activity of modeled neurons within the open field are initially relatively localized, but as backward connections from the goal are strengthened the same neurons should be active when the rat is in a much larger range of spatial locations. The change in neuronal response over time has not been studied, but the distributed firing seen after learning is consistent with experimental data showing firing of medial prefrontal units in a wide range of locations in a familiar environment (Hyman and Hasselmo, unpublished data). Figure 6 also shows a cell from population gi, which shows no activity before learning has occurred (Late), and a cell from population co, which shows activity only for goal directed actions in specific locations.

Figure 6
Activity of units plotted according to the location of the virtual rat in the open field task. White indicates an absence of activity when the virtual rat is in that location, while darker shading indicates greater average activity of a neuron when the ...

The same model was utilized to simulate behavior in a spatial alternation task, requiring the addition of a circuit representing hippocampal recall of the previously generated action at each state. This simulation was able to learn the spatial alternation task, as illustrated in Figure 7A, based on activity corresponding to action values for external states and memory states shown in Figure 7B. The firing of simulated units is shown for different locations of the virtual rat in Figure 7C. These simulations show some more consistent responses dependent on spatial location, primarily due to the more constrained nature of prior action at each location. These plots replicate the dependence of many experimentally recorded neurons on the goal location. The response in Figure 7C, cell #3 resembles goal approach neurons (Jung et al., 1998), while the response in Figure 7C, cell #1 resembles units which respond after visiting the goal location (alternating between bottom right and left). The prominence of goal related firing arises directly from the dependence of synaptic modification on the backward spread from the goal, which causes units close to the goal to respond earlier and more prominently during learning of the task. The simulations again generate the prediction that the spatial distribution of firing should expand as the task is learned, consistent with the expansion of responses seen in some data (Baeg et al., 2003).

Figure 7
A. The network guides correct behavior of the virtual rat in the spatial alternation task as shown for two trials on the figure-8 maze. B. Action values plotted for individual locations (states) on the basis of the strength of connections from the co ...


The model presented here demonstrates how local circuits of the prefrontal cortex could perform selection of action, and provides a functional framework for interpreting the activity of prefrontal units observed during performance of spatial memory tasks (Jung et al., 1998; Baeg et al., 2003). This circuit model contains populations of threshold units which interact via modifiable excitatory synaptic connections. The retrieval process described here shows how spreading activity in the prefrontal cortex could interact with current sensory input to regulate the selection of the next action necessary for goal-directed behavior. The encoding process described here shows how strengthening of synapses by spike timing dependent synaptic plasticity could provide the connectivity patterns necessary for goal-directed behavior. As shown in Figures 6 and and7,7, the activity of individual units in this model are consistent with some of the properties of neuronal firing activity determined by electrophysiological recordings from prefrontal cortex (Jung et al., 1998; Baeg et al., 2003). Most simulated neurons show complex relationships to prior actions, rather than simple responses to state, consistent with the rarity of simple place cells in prefrontal cortex. In addition, neurons in the simulation tend to fire more in regions close to the reward, consistent with evidence for neurons firing during the approach to reward (Jung et al., 1998; Baeg et al., 2003). Research with more detailed integrate-and-fire simulations (Koene and Hasselmo, in press) has replicated some properties of unit firing during performance of a cued response task in monkeys (Schultz et al., 2000). However, the slow speed of simulations with integrate and fire neurons does not yet allow learning with random exploration of the environment as utilized here, and that model is difficult to describe using simple equations as presented here. The different types of units used in this model are consistent with other neurophysiological data. Research shows that some units in prefrontal cortex fire in response to specific sensory stimuli (Schoenbaum and Eichenbaum, 1995; Wallis et al., 2001), consistent with the state representations in a units used here. Research also shows units in prefrontal cortex which fire during particular motor actions (Schoenbaum and Eichenbaum, 1995; Wallis et al., 2001), consistent with the o and co units. Some neurons in prefrontal cortex change their response to specific stimuli based on changes in the association between stimuli and reward (Thorpe et al., 1983; Schoenbaum et al., 2000; Mulder et al., 2003). These changes are consistent with the spread of activity from the reward representation across strengthened connections in this model. A change in reward location will cause a change in the pattern of reverse spread during retrieval in this model, resulting in a change in the firing properties of multiple neurons in the network.

Comparison with functional components of Reinforcement Learning

The model presented here can perform the same functions as elements of Reinforcement Learning. The prefrontal model learns the environment and goal location during exploration, then guides the virtual rat as it follows the shortest pathway from the start location to the goal location. The elements performing this function were developed based on previous simulations of hippocampal function (Hasselmo et al., 2002a; Hasselmo et al., 2002c) rather than on the elements of Reinforcement Learning (Sutton and Barto, 1998). However, these components are clearly related to one another as follows.

In Reinforcement Learning, the selection of next action depends upon the action value function, a look-up table that has values for all possible actions (four in this case) in each state (9 in the open field used here). A similar function is obtained here by computing the strength of activity spreading over output synapses Wo from population co. This provides action values for each state, as plotted in Figure 7B. The modification of Wo during encoding, and the strength of co during retrieval both depend on propagation of activity back from the goal across multiple connections Wg and Wig, including the strength of connections Wg to a given state from multiple different action minicolumns.

In Reinforcement Learning, the selection of a specific action at a specific state is determined by an algorithm which searches only the action values for the current state. This function has been obtained in the circuit model presented here by using an interaction of the sensory input for the current state with the backward spread. Thus, elements in population co only spike when they receive both the input from go (corresponding to action values) and the inputs from a (corresponding to current state). This allows a circuit model to select the action appropriate for the current state. Here, the unit with largest output activity is selected to guide output. However, rather than choosing the maximum of output activity, the selection of output could use mechanisms which select the first output which crosses the firing threshold. For example, the activity in forward output population co could be restricted if we ensure that the first unit which spikes inhibits the activity of other units (Koene and Hasselmo, in press).

In Reinforcement Learning, action values are usually trained with temporal difference learning (Sutton, 1988; Sutton and Barto, 1998), or related algorithms such as SARSA (Sutton and Barto, 1998), which propagate value back from the reward state, through adjacent states. A similar function is provided by equation E1b in this paper. During encoding with this equation, the activity of population go depends on the spread from the goal/reward. Therefore reverse connections Wg are only strengthened for transitions to a minicolumn already receiving spread from reward. Because the action value corresponds to Wg, this means that the action value for one minicolumn only increases when a transition is made to another minicolumn with a larger action value or with direct reward input. This resembles the spread of action values through adjacent states caused by TD learning (Sutton, 1988; Sutton and Barto, 1998).

Previously, elements of Reinforcement Learning theory have been linked to physiological mechanisms. The activity of dopamine neurons has been related to the error term in temporal difference learning (Schultz et al., 1997). Mechanisms for computation of TD error have been attributed to the basal ganglia (Houk et al., 1995). Changes in parameters of exploration, learning rate, and discounting have been related to neuromodulators such as norepinephrine, acetylcholine and serotonin (Doya, 2002). The explicit cortical circuit model presented here could allow the literature on Reinforcement Learning theory to be extended to other specific physiological properties of neurons within cortical structures.


Network dynamics – Separation of encoding and retrieval

This section describes the detailed equations used in these simulations. During each step of a behavioral task, the network dynamics alternate between separate encoding and retrieval phases. This resembles the proposal for separate phases of encoding and retrieval within each cycle of the theta rhythm in the hippocampus (Hasselmo et al., 2002b), and could correspond to phases of theta rhythm observed in medial prefrontal cortex (Manns et al., 2000; Hyman et al., 2002). The input a is maintained during a full cycle of processing (both encoding and retrieval). During the encoding phase of each cycle, the network sets up sequential forward associations between the previous sensory input (state) and the current motor output (action), as well as associations between the motor output (action) and the subsequent resulting state of sensory input. During each encoding period, thalamic input represents either the current action or the current state. During a period of action input, encoding strengthens reverse associations on synapses Wg between the current motor action and the previous sensory state. In addition, during this period, encoding strengthens output connections Wo, between the selectively activated units in the forward output population co and the active elements of the output population o. During a period of state input, encoding forms connections between prior motor actions and the ensuing sensory states, and forms reverse associations Wg between the current sensory state and the previous motor action resulting in that sensory state.

During retrieval, activation of the goal representation causes activity which propagates along reverse connections. The reverse spread of activity from the goal converges with the current state input to activate elements of population co that activate a specific appropriate action in the output vector o. In the absence of specific retrieval guiding output, the network reverts to random activation of the output vector to explore states of the environment associated with different actions.

Equations of the model

RETRIEVAL - Reverse spread from goal

During retrieval, goal directed activity is initiated by input goR to the go units in the goal minicolumn as shown in Figure 2. This represents a motivational drive state due to subcortical activation of prefrontal cortical representations. This retrieval input goR in the goal minicolumn is distinct from activation of the unit a in the goal minicolumn during encoding when the goal/reward is actually encountered in the environment.

The activity caused by goR then spreads back through a range of other minicolumns representing sequences of states and actions that could lead to the goal. The reverse flow of activity from the goal involves two populations gi and go in each minicolumn, entering a minicolumn through the input population gi and exiting from the output population go. These populations contain one unit for interaction with each other minicolumn, so each minicolumn has n units in gi and n units in go. Because there are n minicolumns in the network, this results in n2 units in each population: gi, go.

The reverse spread from one minicolumn to a different minicolumn takes place via a matrix Wg providing reverse connections from go to gi. Reverse connections within a minicolumn take place via a matrix Wig providing connections from population gi to population go. The full set of connections across all minicolumns consists of individual matrices defined within individual minicolumns (so Wig is a matrix of matrices) and individual connections between minicolumns (Wg). The reverse flow spreads transiently through units gi and go, but does not persist in these units. The spread of activity from output vector at the previous time step go(tr-1) across reverse synapses Wg to input vector gi takes the form:


Where tr represents steps of retrieval during one retrieval phase. goR represents input to elements of go in the goal minicolumn during the full period of retrieval. []+ represents a step function with value zero below the threshold and 1 above threshold. The threshold is set to 0.7 in the simulations presented here. Because this is a binary threshold function and activity spreads at discrete time steps through the network, this network can be replicated relatively easily with integrate-and-fire neurons, but runs much more slowly and cannot be described with simple equations (Koene and Hasselmo, 2005).

Reverse spread from the input gi to the output go within a minicolumn involves the matrix Wig, which has modifiable all to all connections between gi and go in each minicolumn. To prevent excessive spread of reverse activity, each minicolumn has inhibitory interneurons responding to the sum of excitatory activity in the input gi which acts on the output go. Both effects are combined in the equation:


Where Wig is the matrix of modified excitatory feedback synapses between the input gi and the output go within each minicolumn, and the matrix WH consists of elements of strength H (set here to 0.4) for all n by n connections within a minicolumn, but has strength zero between minicolumns.

On each retrieval cycle, retrieval is repeated for R steps. In real cortical structures, the total retrieval steps R would probably be determined by the speed of excitatory synaptic transmission at feedback synapses relative to feedback inhibition and by externally imposed oscillations of activity, such as the theta rhythm (Manns et al., 2000).

Convergence of forward and reverse activity

The network performs a comparison of the reverse flow from goal with activity at the current state, in the form of a summation of two inputs followed by thresholding. The forward output population co receives a subthreshold input from the backward input population gi(tr) within a minicolumn (via an identity matrix). The forward population co also receives subthreshold activity from the units of vector a(tr) in that minicolumn representing current sensory input. To make them subthreshold, both inputs are scaled by a constant μ weaker than threshold (μ =0.6).


Thus, an individual unit in the vector co will spike only if it receives input from both a and gi sufficient to bring co over threshold. The retrieval dynamics are similar to those used previously (Hasselmo et al., 2002c; Gorchetchnikov and Hasselmo, 2004), in which reverse flow of activity from the goal converges with forward flow from current location. But here the function uses two populations for input and output, allowing multiple pathways through one minicolumn representing a state or action.

Selection of output

The choice of one output during retrieval is mediated by the spread of activity from units that were activated in population co at the final step of the retrieval period (tr=R). This activity spreads across a set of output connections Wo, which link the populations co with the output units o. For the simple example presented in Figure 2, the output vector o consists of two units representing movements of the agent: go East or go West. For other simulations, the output population consists of units representing movements of an agent in four directions within a grid: North, South, West, East.


The output (next action) of the network is determined by the selection of the output unit based on the maximum activity spreading across Wo from the population co. This equation was also used to compute the action values for each state shown in Figure 7B. The connectivity matrix Wo involves convergence of a relatively large number of units in co onto a small number of output units. After effective encoding, each state minicolumn ends up with appropriate connections from units co to output units o, similar to action values (Sutton and Barto, 1998). The competitive selection process used here could reflect the function of the basal ganglia, which receive convergent input from the cortex, and contain GABAergic projection cells with inhibitory interactions. If retrieval based on prior experience is strong, then the next action of the virtual rat will primarily depend upon retrieval (i.e. the largest output activity), but the network also has some small probability of generating a random output, in order to allow exploration of all possible actions in the environment. Early in encoding, this random output dominates behavior, allowing exploration, but even after encoding, the output is occasionally chosen as the maximum from a separate random vector. This mechanism represents the effect of stochastic firing properties of neurons within cortical structures (Troyer and Miller, 1997). Random output activity allows the network to explore a range of different possible actions in order to find the best actions for obtaining reward within a given environment (Sutton and Barto, 1998; Doya, 2002).

ENCODING - formation of connectivity

Encoding occurs in each state during a separate phase from retrieval. The activity pattern or synaptic connectivity modified by each of the following equations is labeled in Figure 8. The encoding phase consists of a single time step te, during which the multiple encoding equations shown below are implemented. Thus, te-1 refers to activity retained from the previous encoding phase. This contrasts with the retrieval phases, each of which involves multiple steps tr up to the maximum R (thus, tr-1 refers to a previous time step in the same retrieval phase). Encoding modifies the matrices Wg, Wig and Wc. These matrices start with specific patterns of connectivity representing sparse connections from the output population in minicolumn number "o" (units 1 to n) to the input population in minicolumn number "i" (units 1 to n), as follows: Wg=g(i1)n+og(o1)n+iT=0.5. (The same connectivity was used for Wc). The internal connections Wig start with more extensive connectivity representing intra-column excitatory connections, as follows: Wig=g(o1)n+(1n)g(i1)n+(1n)T=0.5.

Activity in go and gi

For the equations of encoding, first imagine the association between a state (location) which arrives as input on step te-1 and a new action generated in this state (which arrives at time step te). The state minicolumn has a buffer which holds the prior state input a(te-1), labeled with Ei in Figure 8. Subsequently, the random output o(te) is generated, labeled with Eii of Figure 8. This causes proprioceptive input about the action a(te), labeled with Eiii in Figure 8. These inputs are then encoded.

Two different forms of encoding were tested, as shown in Figure 4. In one model, the new input vector a causes suprathreshold activation of the go population in a specific action minicolumn (Fig 4C).


A different version (equation E1b) works better and is used in most simulations (Fig 4B). This is:


μ is a constant (μ=0.6) which must be smaller than the threshold (of 0.7), but large enough for combined input (2µ) to be suprathreshold. In this version, the effect of the input vector a on the reverse output population go is made subthreshold, and activity in the population go at time te (note different time index) only crosses threshold if it converges with backward spread from the goal as computed by the activity during the final retrieval step on that cycle (tr=R) in the population go(tr). This version of encoding gives the neocortex model properties similar to the TD learning algorithm proposed by Sutton (Sutton, 1988; Sutton and Barto, 1998). This learning rule is not equivalent to TDlearning, but does cause modification of connections dependent on an interaction of current state and action with the backward spread from goal (which plays a role similar to the value function in TD learning).

Modification of Wg

Once activity has been induced in the go population of the newly activated minicolumn, this activity spreads in the reverse direction back to the minicolumn activated by the previous state, which is actived by a separate buffer holding a(te-1). Spiking network simulations suggest that intrinsic afterdepolarization properties can provide this buffer function in a variety of regions including prefrontal cortex (Lisman and Idiart, 1995; Klink and Alonso, 1997; Haj-Dahmane and Andrade, 1998; Fransén et al., 2002; Koene et al., 2003; Koene and Hasselmo, 2005). The population gi in the previous state minicolumn receives subthreshold input from the buffered representation of a(te-1), and receives subthreshold input from go across reverse connections Wg, which start out with weak initial strength. These two subthreshold inputs cause activity in a single unit in gi which receives both inputs.


In a network with higher time resolution (Koene and Hasselmo, 2005), spiking in gi would follow spiking in go by a short delay, allowing spike timing dependent Hebbian synaptic plasticity to modify the connections Wg according to:


In these simulations, the strength of existing connections started at 0.5 and was limited to a maximum of 1.0, which was reached in a single step when both presynaptic and postsynaptic activity were present. The connectivity of Wg has a specific form meant to represent sparse connectivity between cortical columns. There is only one connection Wg between each pair of minicolumns.

Modification of Wig

In order to link the association between the previous state and the new action with the association between previous action and previous state, the modification of Wg needs to be followed by modification of internal reverse connections Wig, that are all to all connections within each minicolumn. Modification of these connections occurs due to persistence of activity in the forward input population of the previous state minicolumn ci(te-1). This forward input population then supplements the activity of the go population, as follows:


This allows the activity of go to be selective for the connection to the minicolumn which received input a(te-2) (due to equation E6 below). Activity induced in go by this buffer follows activity in gi by a short delay, allowing spike timing dependent Hebbian plasticity to modify connections Wig as follows:


Activity in co and ci

Population co is updated by the buffer of prior input a(te-1):


This activity then spreads forward over the weak initial strength of forward connections to converge with subthreshold input of current input a(te) to induce activity in specific units of the population ci in the new minicolumn as follows:


Modification of Wc

The modification of forward connections does not play a strong functional role in the examples presented here, but will be important for forward planning evaluating possible forward pathways. The modification of the forward connections Wc uses the new activity co and ci:


Modification of output weights Wo

Finally, the output population co(te) is associated with the current activity in the output population o(te). The activity in the output population was previously generated by the action currently being encoded by the network. Initially these outputs are generated randomly. On each step, the network learns the association between activity in a specific unit of co (which is activated by the reverse connection input to gi) and the element of the output vector which caused this output. This would allow effective learning of the mapping between internal representations and output populations even without highly structured connectivity. The activity in the output forward population is set by the input reverse population:


Then the output weights are modified according to the activity at this time step:


These stages of encoding allow spike timing dependent synaptic plasticity to strengthen the connections necessary for the retrieval process described in the earlier section. As shown in Figure 9, the representation of each movement from one location to another requires two steps of encoding. The first forms associations between the prior location (vector a(te-1)) and the proprioceptive feedback of the randomly generated action (vector a(te)). The second forms an association between the proprioceptive representation of the randomly generated action (the action vector which is now a(te-1)), and the new state (now represented by the vector a(te)).


Work supported by NIH DA16454, DA11716, NSF SBE-0354378, NIH MH61492, and NIH60013.


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