Oxytocin modulates neurocomputational mechanisms underlying prosocial reinforcement learning

Daniel Martins, Patricia Lockwood, Jo Cutler, Rosalyn Moran, Yanis Paloyelis*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


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.

Original languageEnglish
Article number102253
Number of pages15
JournalProgress in neurobiology
Early online date3 Mar 2022
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This study was part-funded by: an Economic and Social Research Council Grant (ES/K009400/1) to YP; scanning time support by the National Institute for Health Research ( NIHR ) Biomedical Research Centre at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and King’s College London to YP; an unrestricted research grant by PARI GmbH to YP. P.L was supported by a Medical Research Council Fellowship (MR/P014097/1, MR/P014097/2), a Christ Church Junior Research Fellowship , a Christ Church Research Centre Grant, and a Jacobs Foundation Research Fellowship.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 Elsevier Ltd


  • Dose-response
  • Intranasal oxytocin
  • Mesolimbic pathways
  • Prosocial behaviour
  • Reinforcement learning
  • Subgenual anterior cingulate (sgACC)

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)


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