Linking Synaptic Plasticity to Operant Learning
Yonatan Loewenstein, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

According to the law of effect, formulated by Thorndike over a century ago, actions that are closely followed by satisfaction are more likely to recur in a similar situation, whereas actions followed by discomfort are suppressed. The neural mechanisms and computational principles underlying this law of behavior are a topic of intensive research. The standard approach posits that the brain utilizes an explicit representation of the value of the different alternatives to choose between alternative actions. I propose an alternative explanation to the law of effect. I hypothesize that there are forms of synaptic plasticity driven by the covariance between reward and neural activity. I prove mathematically that this plasticity rule, which describes the microscopic dynamics of synapses, predicts that behavior will follow “the matching law”. According to the matching law, a well-known phenomenological law of behavior, the probability of choosing an alternative in a long sequence of repeated choices is proportional to the total reward derived from that alternative. I will demonstrate this law of behavior in the behavior of rats and humans, and show how a model that is based on covariance-based synaptic plasticity provides a quantitative description of choice behavior of rats in a free operant task.

Background Review Article:

Loewenstein Y, Seung HS. Operant matching is a generic outcome of synaptic plasticity based on the covariance between reward and neural activity. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2006 Oct 10;103(41):15224-9. Epub 2006 Sep 28.

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