Oxytocin modulates neurocomputational mechanisms underlying prosocial reinforcement learning


Humans often act in the best interests of others. However, how we learn which actions result in good outcomes for other people and the neurochemical systems that support this ‘prosocial learning’ remain poorly understood. Using computational models of reinforcement learning, functional magnetic resonance imaging and dynamic causal modelling, we examined how different doses of intranasal oxytocin, a neuropeptide linked to social cognition, impact how people learn to benefit others (prosocial learning) and whether this influence could be dissociated from how we learn to benefit ourselves (self-oriented learning). We show that a low dose of oxytocin prevented decreases in prosocial performance over time, despite no impact on self-oriented learning. Critically, oxytocin produced dose-dependent changes in the encoding of prediction errors (PE) in the midbrain-subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sgACC) pathway specifically during prosocial learning. Our findings reveal a new role of oxytocin in prosocial learning by modulating computations of PEs in the midbrain-sgACC pathway.