Unraveling the role of the hippocampus in reversal learning

Adrià Vilà-Balló, Ernest Mas-Herrero, Pablo Ripollés, Marta Simó, Júlia Miró, David Cucurell, Diana López-Barroso, Montserrat Juncadella, Josep Marco-Pallarés, Mercè Falip, Antoni Rodríguez-Fornells

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Research in reversal learning has mainly focused on the functional role of dopamine and striatal structures in driving behavior on the basis of classic reinforcement learning mechanisms. However, recent evidence indicates that, beyond classic reinforcement learning adaptations, individuals may also learn the inherent task structure and anticipate the occurrence of reversals. A candidate structure to support such task representation is the hippocampus, which might create a flexible representation of the environment that can be adaptively applied to goal-directed behavior. To investigate the functional role of the hippocampus in the implementation of anticipatory strategies in reversal learning, we first studied, in 20 healthy individuals (11 women), whether the gray matter anatomy and volume of the hippocampus were related to anticipatory strategies in a reversal learning task. Second, we tested 20 refractory temporal lobe epileptic patients (11 women) with unilateral hippocampal sclerosis, who served as a hippocampal lesion model. Our results indicate that healthy participants were able to learn the task structure and use it to guide their behavior and optimize their performance. Participants' ability to adopt anticipatory strategies correlated with the gray matter volume of the hippocampus. In contrast, hippocampal patients were unable to grasp the higher-order structure of the task with the same success than controls. Present results indicate that the hippocampus is necessary to respond in an appropriately flexible manner to high-order environments, and disruptions in this structure can render behavior habitual and inflexible. SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Understanding the neural substrates involved in reversal learning has provoked a great deal of interest in the last years. Studies with nonhuman primates have shown that, through repetition, individuals are able to anticipate the occurrence of reversals and, thus, adjust their behavior accordingly. The present investigation is devoted to know the role of the hippocampus in such strategies. Importantly, our findings evidence that the hippocampus is necessary to anticipate the occurrence of reversals, and disruptions in this structure can render behavior habitual and inflexible.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)6686-6697
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number28
StatePublished - 2017


  • Epilepsy
  • Flexible behavior
  • Hippocampus
  • Model-based strategies
  • Reinforcement learning
  • Reversal learning
  • Nerve Net/anatomy & histology
  • Reversal Learning/physiology
  • Gray Matter/anatomy & histology
  • Humans
  • Middle Aged
  • Male
  • Epilepsy/pathology
  • Hippocampus/anatomy & histology
  • Adult
  • Female
  • Models, Neurological
  • Anticipation, Psychological/physiology
  • Discrimination Learning/physiology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience


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