Category Archives: basal ganglia

The role of phasic dopamine in the basal ganglia

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m reading a series of papers that presents a model of the basal ganglia, written mainly by Peter Redgrave, Kevin Gurney, and John Reynolds. Of particular interest throughout these articles is a re-examination of the role of the short-term phasic dopamine (DA) signal from the substantia nigra pars compacta (SNc). A well-propagated view is that the phasic DA signal is a reward prediction-error signal, but Redgrave et al present a strong argument against this and suggest instead a role of an agency determination / novel movement identification mechanism. In this post I’m going to be presenting their argument for this, and how reinforcement and reward based learning in the basal ganglia could work at large. Again, throughout there will be comments and questions I put forth, I will make an effort for it to be clear when something is from me and when it’s from the papers.

Phasic DA signal as a reward-prediction error
The idea that the phasic DA signal serves as a reward-prediction error is born out of a series of experiments presented in [Schultz 1998]. The idea of reward-prediction error comes from instrumental (aka operant) conditioning, where rewards ‘reinforce’ behavior by strengthening associations between stimuli and behavioral responses. Formally, a reward-prediction error is defined as the difference between the reward predicted at a given point in time and the actual reward received. This goes way back to [Thorndike 1911] where Thorndike formally states the idea as the Law of Effect:

Any act which in a given situation produces satisfaction becomes associated with that situation so that when the situation recurs the act is more likely than before to recur also.

In Schultz’s experiments, the DA neurons of a monkey are recorded from as the monkey performs a number of various tasks, including “reaction time tasks, direct and delayed GO-NO GO tasks, spatial delayed response and alternation tasks, air puff and saline active avoidance tasks, operant and classically conditioned visual discrimination tasks, self-initiated movements, and unpredicted delivery of a reward in absence of any formal task.” This following image has been lifted from the results of [Schultz 1998]:

The explanation of these results is presented as follows. In the top figure, a reward (R) is unexpectedly delivered and the DA neurons activate. This is because there is a positive error in the predicted reward; no reward was expected, but there was one, BOOM, phasic DA signal. In the middle figure a conditioned stimulus (CS) has been associated with the reward, now the CS occurs unexpectedly, which means that a reward is on the way, thus once again there is a positive error in the predicted reward. Now, however, at the time of reward delivery the reward was predicted and the reward was received. There was no error in reward-prediction, so there is no phasic DA signal. And finally, in the bottom panel we see a CS cause activation of the phasic DA signal, but this time no reward is delivered. Now, exactly when the reward should be delivered and is not there is a negative reward-prediction error, and a corresponding decrease in tonic DA levels is observed.

Another interesting result from this experiment is that the phasic DA signal will push backwards along the chain of predictive events to the earliest predictive sensory stimulus signalling that a reward is coming. Taken all together, a pretty strong case for the reward-prediction error hypothesis is presented.

Problems with phasic DA as a reward-prediction error
There are, however, a number of problems have arisen under close examination of this hypothesis and through further experimental work, laid out by Redgrave et al. These are the main contentions:

  • DA neurons respond not only to rewarding stimuli, but also to non-rewarding sensory events salient only by virtue of their novelty or intensity [Schultz 1998], as well as conditioned stimuli not associated with a reward [Bromberg-Martin 2010].
  • The phasic DA response is remarkably stereotyped (occurring with ~100ms latency, and a duration of ~100ms), across species, sensory modalities, numerous experimental paradigms, and largely independent of perceptual complexity of eliciting event [Redgrave 2011]. This highly stereotyped DA response time is incongruent with the reward-prediction error hypothesis when considering that there can be a marked difference in the time taken to establish the reward value of different stimuli.
  • The latency of gaze-shifts is in the range of 150-250ms [Jay 1987], and the phasic DA response very reliably occurs around ~100ms [Schultz 1998], this means that the reward-prediction error must be calculated before the animal has foveated on the stimulus. Additionally, the source of visual information driving the DA neurons is largely, if not exclusively, the superior colliculus. Neurons in the superior colliculus are highly sensitive to the location of luminance changes, but largely nonresponsive to color and geometric configurations, meaning that the superior colliculus is not in a position to provide object identity (and reward) information to DA neurons.

To contend with these last two points, a number of experiments have shown that DA neurons have shown responses of differing magnitudes and probabilities to unpredicted complex visual stimuli. However, throughout all of the experiments conducted, the different visual stimuli were presented consistently at the same location, which is exactly the visual feature that superior colliculus is capable of detecting [Redgrave 2006]. Rather than discriminating between complex visual stimuli features, the location of the stimuli is instead being used to determine the reward value of the stimulus. Outside of the experimental paradigm, however, temporally unpredictable events are also spatially unpredictable, which makes it unlikely that determining reward value by spatial location in natural environments would be a useful mechanism.

Taken all together, a pretty strong case against the reward-prediction error hypothesis is presented.

An alternative implementation of instrumental conditioning
In the paper series, Redgrave et al propose that instrumental (again, also known as operant) conditioning arises as a function of two mechanisms in the brain: 1) A mechanism to determine whether or not an unpredicted sensory stimuli was caused by the system (agency), establishing a cause-effect relationship if one exists, and 2) a mechanism for reward to modulate the afferent input to the striatum. As mentioned in the last post, the basal ganglia is a proposed central selection device, choosing actions based on the saliency of their input.

Phasic DA for agency determination / novel movement identification
Instead of the reward-prediction error being determined by the phasic DA signal, it is proposed to function for a much more basic purpose: Identifying the cause of unpredicted sensory stimuli. This is a prerequisite to instrumental conditioning / any adaptive behavior. This proposal is based on identifying another function that would generate behavior very similar to a reward-prediction error, while also considering the precise and highly stereotyped natures of the response (~100ms latency, ~100ms duration), and the other information that is likely to be in the striatum at the point when the phasic DA signal arrives. According to [Redgrave 2006] and [Redgrave 2008], there are at least three additional signals in the striatum at the time of phasic DA release:

  1. Sensory: from branching projections of the superior colliculus, providing information on the stimulus that elicited the phasic DA response
  2. Contextual information (i.e. general sensory, metabolic, cognitive state, and physical location): from any number of cortical, limbic, and subcortical projections into the striatum, and
  3. Motor-copy: signals sent from cortical and subcortical sensorimotor structures to the brainstem and spinal cord provide efference copies of the outgoing motor command through branching projections that are relayed both directly and indirectly (through the thalamus) to the dorsal striatum.

Note that these signals would also be in the basal ganglia and likely used in the same way in the proposal that phasic DA is for reward-prediction error as well. However, the list of problems presented above suggests strongly that stimulus and reward-value identification do not operate through the short-latency phasic DA signal. Agency detection is the alternative proposal for a learning based function that requires highly precise timing information, and does not rely on unavailable information such as object identity and actual stimulus reward-value.

One of the main problems with identifying the cause of unexpected stimuli is sorting through the irrelevant information to arrive at the specific trigger. The idea for the phasic DA signal to overcome this computational problem is that it ‘tags’ the signals in the dorsal striatum, including the motor-copy, when an unexpected stimulus occurs, making those actions to be more likely to be chosen again in a similar contextual situation. The authors also note that this process would be aided by the short-latency nature of the phasic DA signal, such that behavior evoked by the stimuli doesn’t get included in the signal tagging, confounding the event-outcome identification.
Through noisy exploration trying to make the event recur, signals that are consistently present become reinforced further, weeding through those that aren’t required to elicit the unexpected stimulus. Eventually the signal which accurately predicts the stimulus is identified. If it is a movement, then it gets added to the ‘library’ of motor actions, increasing the animals repertoire of predictable action / outcomes; in this way the phasic DA signal acts to determine agency and identify new movements. If the signal is not a movement, the association with a reward is noted, stored, and life carries on.

Prediction of sensory stimuli
As mentioned above, DA neurons respond to novel sensory stimuli. Interestingly, the novelty response of DA neurons habituates rapidly when a sensory stimulus fails to associate with a reward. Although much is known about the variables that influence habituation in primitive or reduced preparations, relatively little is known about the mechanisms behind the habituation of un-reinforced sensory stimuli [Redgrave 2011]. It could be a default property of the early sensory networks when a stimulus is repeatedly applied in the absence of any reinforcement, or the result of an outside network modulating afferent projections to sensory systems.

However, when a stimulus is associated with reward, early sensory systems sensitize to its presentation. Additionally, the phasic DA response shifts back to occur at the time of the conditioned stimulus, rather than at the time of the reward. This response continues to push backwards to the first predictable event in a chain of events leading to a reward, seemingly in conflict with the sensitization of stimuli associated with a reward. Additionally, if the conditioned stimulus occurs and the reward does not follow, at the time of the expected reward there is a dip in the tonic DA level.
The mechanism responsible is a precisely timed inhibitory signal that acts to cancel out the phasic DA response evoked by predicted rewards [Schultz 1998]. As stimuli are recognized as predictors of future sensory events, this timed inhibitory signal prevents the activation of the DA neurons. In this way only the first, unpredicted, appearance of a CS in a chain of events evokes a phasic DA response. The goal of this response is to try to learn the cause of this stimulus, in the event that no predictor is learned, the predictor first in the chain will continue to evoke a phasic DA response.

The source of this precisely timed inhibitory signal has not been identified experimentally, but there are several candidates identified in [Redgrave 2011]: direct inhibitory inputs from within the basal ganglia (striatum or globus pallidus); indirect inhibitory inputs from the habenulu-rostro-medial tegmental system (hRMTg); or phasic afferent excitation of local inhibitory neurons with connections to nearby DA neurons.

A side note from me. The cerebellum is widely regarded as a supervised learning center for the brain (so widely I won’t even provide supporting references!). With its highly stereotyped repeated neural structure, and the insane amount of neurons it houses (accounting for 10% of the volume of the brain but holding over 50% of its neurons!), it is thought to provide this supervised learning functionality for a number of different neural systems. The prediction of sensory events given a conditioned stimulus or efference copy of a motor command is a very basic supervised learning problem. The hRMTg system has, in its wide list of afferent projections, connections with deep cerebellar neurons [Jhou 2011]. Although the cerebellum wouldn’t necessarily be required, it also has access to all the contextual, sensory, and motor copy information sent to the basal ganglia, and the connections to the hRMTg system suggest it to me as a favorite among the possibilities listed.

Response to noxious events
Another highly valuable feature for a system is to flag any actions which led to a noxious, such as a painful response, and prevent those actions from being executed again. It would be expected, then, that DA activity is suppressed whenever noxious stimiuli are encountered. Indeed this is the case [Redgrave 2006], where phasic suppression of DA activity lasts for the duration of the noxious event. The mechanism believed responsible for this effect are specialized, high-threshold nociceptors, which are sensory receptors that responds to potentially damaging stimuli with direct projections to the spinal cord and brain. In the same way that phasic DA release potentiates connection strengths, phasic DA suppression depresses the weighting of these connections, making them less likely to be chosen again in the future when a similar situation arises.
To be clear, this response is only expected from stimuli that are directly perceived by the nociceptors to be noxious, such a phasic DA suppression is not expected in the case that a stimuli is noxious but higher level processing is required to determine its reward-value.

Reward maximization;
So we’ve established a likely function for the phasic DA signal, the identification of agency. There’s more to instrumental conditioning, however. There also needs to be a means of reward maximization. The details are light on this part of the model, but are based on the observation of computational models that afferent sensory structures projecting into the basal ganglia could also demonstrate reward-based modulation. This is would give rise to the reward-based action selection bias that is the crux of formal reinforcement learning. This figure is lifted from [Redgrave 2011]:

In this figure the proposed system is shown operating in response to intrinsic (to the basal ganglia) reinforcement on the left, in (A). This case arises when unexpected stimuli bias the action selection process of the basal ganglia to attempt to discover the cause of this stimulus, causing a ‘repetition bias’. On the right of the figure, in (B), the system is shown responding to extrinsic reinforcement, where higher level cortical processing centers have determined that a stimulus was rewarding, and the strength of projections into the basal ganglia are weighted to make the responsible action more likely to be repeated.

As the authors admit, how the reward maximization on the afferent projections to the basal ganglia could occur is still very much unknown. Additionally, as previously mentioned, the mechanisms through which non-reward associated novel stimuli habituate and reward associated novel stimuli sensitize remain to be determined. But the reward maximization proposal is definitely of secondary concern in these papers, the main issue being the reconsideration of the function of the phasic DA signal, for which a case was very strongly presented.

Overview of proposed model;
To put this all together, the system model works as follows. An event occurs that causes activity in an early sensory processing system, which activates the DA neurons. The DA neurons cause a biasing of action selection towards the actions in the dorsal striatum at that moment (which are the actions just taken), which potentially caused the novel, or unpredicted, sensory stimulus. Some other system now says ‘hey that was a rewarding stimuli, don’t habituate to it early sensory systems!’, preventing habituation in the early sensory system. The stimulus then continues to drive the DA neurons, tagging the signals that are in the striatum at that time. As this happens, the signals in the striatum will vary through noise on during action selection, which helps exploration to try to pin down what causes this unexpected (and now defined to be) rewarding sensory stimulus. So far all the biasing of action choice is taking place inside the striatum. When the phasic DA release has pinned down the signals that elicit this sensory stimulus, there’s a transference of this signal to the cortex. In the cortex the reward-maximization system can now bias this action that was figured out in the basal ganglia such that it’s weighted more heavily outside the striatum. Once this is done, the inhibitory predictive system can now learn the association between this signal occurring and a reward following, and a precisely timed inhibitory spike can be generated and sent to the DA neurons to prevent a dopaminergic release.

The last part about the inhibitory predictive system kicking in after transference to the cortex wasn’t explicitly stated in any of the papers, but that’s my understanding of this model.

Questions / Comments
Here are some questions that have come up as I’ve been reading through these papers.

– As mentioned in the previous post, the basal ganglia is proposed to be the central selection device for the brain. This means that the different command systems vying for control are constantly projecting in saliency signals, which makes me wonder how does BG make decisions for the upcoming moment if bombarded by efferent copies of motor commands? I remember reading previously in articles with other models of the basal ganglia a functional actor/critic separation of the dorsal/ventral striatum. Would some separation of saliency and information signals help? Or could it have something to do with dual population coding, which the authors previously mentioned as a means of conveying saliency. Perhaps the information is transmitted and the saliency is chosen from the norm of the vector of firing rates inside the striatum? This second option seems likely to introduce some timing issues.

– There are several promising models which operate based on reward maximization in happening first inside the basal ganglia, then being transferred out to the cortex [Ashby 2007], would the above separation into actor/critic dorsal/ventral striatum help realize this? With novelty detection in the dorsal side, receiving projections from the DA neurons, and reward maximization on the ventral side? Then upon consolidation of a “good” set of movements or action plans transference to the cortex? I am interested to investigate this.

Lots to think about!


[Ashby 2007] – A neurobiological theory of automaticity in perceptual categorization
[Bromberg-Martin 2010] – Dopamine in Motivational Control: Rewarding, Aversive, and Alerting
[Jay 1987] – Sensorimotor integration in the primate superior colliculus. I. Motor convergence
[Jhou 2011] – The mesopontine rostromedial tegmental nucleus: a structure targeted by the lateral habenula that projects to the ventral tegmental area of Tsai and substantia nigra compacta
[Matsumoto 2009] – Two types of dopamine neuron distinctly convey positive and negative motivational signals
[Redgrave 2006] – The short-latency dopamine signal: a role in discovering novel actions?
[Redgrave 2008] – What is reinforced by phasic dopamine signals?
[Redgrave 2011] – Functional properties of the basal ganglia’s re-entrant loop architecture: selection and reinforcement
[Schultz 1998] – Predictive Reward Signal of Dopamine Neurons
[Thorndike 1911] – Animal intelligence; experimental studies
Redgrave P, Vautrelle N, & Reynolds JN (2011). Functional properties of the basal ganglia’s re-entrant loop architecture: selection and reinforcement. Neuroscience, 198, 138-51 PMID: 21821101

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The basal ganglia for action selection

Peter Redgrave, Kevin Gurney, and John Reynolds have a series of papers out where they detail a basal ganglia model, looking at its physiology and potential functional role in the brain. They address a number of different points in their papers, and I’m going to write up a couple of posts in hopes of making the model / material more accessible and furthering my own understanding. I’ll also be adding in my own thoughts and questions as I go along, but I’ll try to keep explicit when ideas are coming from papers and when they’re coming from me. In this post I’m going to look at the basal ganglia’s proposed role as an action selection center.

Basal ganglia as an action selection center
In complex systems like the brain, there are numerous processes and sub-systems operating in parallel. Things like feeding, predator avoidance, mating, etc are all going to be suggesting a specific course of action for the body to follow (hereafter these different sub-systems will be referred to as ‘command systems’, keeping with terminology from the paper series). The problem arises in that there is only one body, and letting all the command systems have at controlling the body all at once is a poor idea for generating effective / efficient behavior. What is needed is a method of relegating control of the motor system to a single command system, and preventing signals from other command systems from interfering. This can be done by having all command systems put forward an ‘urgency’ (or saliency) level, and then using a winner-take-all (WTA) function to choose one to be in control.

In [Redgrave 1999], a set of possible solutions from engineering are presented in three WTA system architecture types: subsumption, distributed, and central selection.

Subsumption: In the subsumption architecture, the command systems have a priority ordering. In the event of a conflict, systems higher up on the priority list can override those lower than them to interrupt and suppress or replace outgoing commands. Although this allows quick response to environmental contingencies (such as the appearance of a predator, with the ‘evade predators’ command system given top priority), the prioritization is built in to the system, and as more command systems are added it becomes difficult to determine a proper prioritization. Additionally, due to the ordering of systems being built-in, the subsumption architecture displays far less flexibility than biological nervous systems.

Distributed: The distributed architecture is a popular choice for winner-take-all implementations, where each option is connected to all the others with an inhibitory connection. As the saliency of a given option increases, it inhibits the other options, which in turn reduces the inhibition they project back, until only one option is uninhibited. Here, selection is considered an ’emergent’ property of the network. This architecture also supports adaptation, as the weighting of the connections between options can be tuned, giving rise to complex dominance dynamics. However, there is a costly implementation. First, every option must be connected to every other option (resulting in n(n – 1) connections), and the connection weights properly balanced to give the desired prioritization. Second, to integrate a new option into the system another 2n connections must be added, and they must be properly balanced with the already existing connection weights. Third, the more options that are added to this system, the longer it takes to choose between them, especially if several options present saliency values very close to one another (this last point was added by me, and is not stated in the papers).

Central selection: In the central selection architecture, all of the command systems send their saliency values to a central switching device, which chooses one of them as the winner. In this case, the complexity of system connectivity is significantly reduced, to only 2n connections total (one from and to each command system), and to add a new system only requires 2 connections be added. Additionally, the case of tuning the connection weights from each system becomes significantly easier, as the dynamics that determine the winner are now explicitly based on the weighting of the only connection from each command system in to the central switching device.

Unsurprisingly, the central selection architecture is proposed to best model the structure of the brain for selecting between command systems (although the authors suggest each command system may implement a distributed selection architecture internally), and the basal ganglia is proposed as the central switching device. Supporting this, a computational model of the basal ganglia was presented in [Gurney 2001], and implemented in spiking neurons in [Stewart 2010], based on biological structure that very efficiently perform winner-take-all functionality. Interestingly, its architecture is such that it effectively chooses a winner quickly regardless of the number of competitors and its performance does not suffer from competitors presenting very similar saliency values [Stewart 2010].

Central selection constraints: The use of a central selection architecture also imposes several constraints: 1) the saliency of each competitor must be measured in some ‘common currency’, and 2) the output of the central switching device (the basal ganglia) must be set up such that it can activate the winning command system, and disable the losing ones.

For the common currency between command systems, the authors propose the use of dual population encoding [Koechlin 1996], which I’ll go into in another post more in detail, but basically says two things can be extracted from the firing pattern of a population of neurons: the first is the information being represented, and the second is the saliency of this information, determined as the norm of firing rates of the neurons.

To address the second constraint, we’ll first need to look briefly at the structure of the basal ganglia.

Basic structure of the basal ganglia
This is a very low-res diagram of the neurobiological structure of the basal ganglia, taken from [Gurney 2001]:
The principle input components of the basal ganglia are the striatum and the subthalamic nuclean (STN). These structures receive projections from pretty much the entire cerebral cortex, including the motor, sensory, association, and limbic areas. The main output components of the basal ganglia are the internal segment of the globus pallidus (GPi), and the substantia nigra pars reticulata and lateralis (SNr). The output of the basal ganglia projects then through the thalamus and back to the cortex. Notably, projections routed through the thalamus go to both the same sites that originated the basal ganglia input, as well as others, forming both closed and open loop systems [Joel 1994].

Parallel functional loops: There are two particular points of interest of the basal ganglia structure relevant to this discussion. The first is that there is an intrinsic separation of information from different brain regions as it travels through the basal ganglia, such that the basal ganglia can be viewed as having a number of different processing tracts that operate in parallel: limbic, associative, sensory, and motor. This is the set of closed loops mentioned above. Here is an illustration, taken from [Redgrave 2011]:
All of these loops have a highly similar structure, suggesting that each performs the same function on different information [Voorn 2004].

Tonically inhibitory output: The second point of interest addresses our second constraint mentioned above, of requiring some mechanism for enabling / disabling the output from a chosen command system to take control of the body: The output from the basal ganglia to the thalamus is tonically inhibitory. There have been several possible functional roles proposed for this tonic inhibition, both in the closed and open loop projections. I’ll discuss the closed loop case below. In the open loop projections, there seems to be a clear potential for a ‘gating’ mechanism, where the output from the winning system is disinhibited in the thalamus and allowed to pass forward. Extrapolating from this, I’ve made a very, very, very simplified diagram illustrating how open loop gating using tonic inhibition could work:
Here, the association area has a bunch of different command systems, labelled 1 through K, which all have their own ideas about what the motor control system should be doing. They each send out a branching projection, with the saliency values used by the basal ganglia, and the information carried into the thalamus. They all project to a part of the thalamus which routes the information to the motor system, but due to tonic inhibition from the basal ganglia, no information is passed through. Once the basal ganglia chooses a winner from the K command systems, however, that winner’s channel in the thalamus is disinhibited, and it can send it’s directions out to the motor system for execution. In this way, the basal ganglia has the ability to enable / disable output from a command system.

After discussion with a couple of the guys in my lab, a couple of benefits of using tonic inhibition over selective excitation as the output of the basal ganglia have come up.
The first is that the use of inhibition is a much simpler implementation of a gateway. When using inhibition, the connections from the basal ganglia fire if no information should pass through, and stop firing when it should. In the case of activation, however, there is necessarily some sort of multiplication operation being performed such that the output from the gateway is GATEWAY_VALUE * INPUT_VALUE. In addition to being more complicated that inhibition of undesired options, it’s inclined towards performance errors.
This is the second point, in that with tonic inhibition the basal ganglia stomps everything out. So nothing is accidentally passed through a gateway if a INPUT_VALUE becomes highly active. With selective activation, it’s foreseeable that high levels of INPUT_VALUE could mimic the activation levels of GATEWAY_VALUE * INPUT_VALUE. In these ways tonic inhibition makes a gateway functionality more efficient and effective.

Alternatively, the open loop gating could also function as my supervisory, Chris Eliasmith, comments below: The routing signal from the basal ganglia is projected through the thalamus out to modulate the cortico-cortico connections from the associative area to the motor cortex. Modifying the example diagram above to operate this way, we get:

In this case I drew out the different connections for clarity. The saliency values are projected to the basal ganglia, and a winner is chosen. The modulatory values projected through the thalamus then connect to the corticocortical connections from the associative area to the motor area, and set such that the winner is allowed to project into the motor area and the others are prevented. The benefit of performing gating this way is that the required bandwidth for information passing through the thalamus is significantly reduced.

Closed loop projections: The information in this subsection is not discussed in the paper series. The natural question following the discussion of the potential role of the open loops and tonic inhibition in the thalamus as a gating mechanism is what could the role of the closed loops be? The basal ganglia has been shown to play a strong role in motor learning and sequence learning. In [Stewart 2008], a spiking neuron model of the basal ganglia was developed that demonstrates how the recurrent connections with the cortex can be used to control the evolving dynamics of a population of neurons. In the paper a simple set of rules for counting are developed. In experiments on monkeys involving sequence learning, monkeys perform a similar type of learning figuring out how to appropriately move their arms to get the reward. If the basal ganglia is damaged, the monkeys are no longer able to learn new sequences, but can still perform previously learned sequences [Turner 2005].

[Ashby 2007] propose that information such as motor sequences can be learned in the basal ganglia, where very fine-grained mechanisms for identifying the timing and causal relationship between action and effect exit, and once learned, it can then be transferred to the cortex for more automatic execution. This is thought to be what has happened when monkeys are able to execute previously learned sequences, but not able to learn new sequences.

The use of tonically inhibitory output here is still unclear, but one possibility is that inside each command system there is a distributed network, containing each of the possible ‘next step’s for that command system. Inside the basal ganglia, one of these next steps is chosen, and it’s selection amounts to disinhibiting recurrent connections back to itself, allowing its saliency to increase to a point that all the other options are fully inhibited and the dynamics evolve according to the chosen next step.

Hierarchical selection of action
Now with this whole system in place, it is proposed that this structure serves to implement a hierarchy of action selection [Redgrave 1999]. In this hierarchy, the decision on how to next move would start out at a very abstract level, as a competition between some basic command systems arguing about how hungry, tired, horny, etc you are. Once it’s decided that you are more hungry than the others, the next level of the hierarchy is engaged to decide what your best option is: go to the store to get food, eat your canned beans, or order a pizza. This then continues on until you get to a level of deciding what muscles to move, all based on your goal of eating a can of beans. This of course is a gross simplification of any possible analogous process in the brain, but it hopefully gets the point across.

One of the major benefits of a hierarchical action selection setup is that decision making is simplified on the lower levels, because a large number of options are not in line with the decisions made at a higher level. For example, to the end of getting your can of beans, you probably don’t have to decide to not punch yourself in the face, because it doesn’t further you along your path to getting beans.

Things of course become even more complicated when you consider that is possible to be working towards to goals at the same time, in that it is possible for us to successfully walk and chew gum at the same time. But looking at that falls outside of the scope of this post.

In this post I’ve put forth the case presented in the paper series from Redgrave et al for the basal ganglia as an action selection center. Without a doubt there is much more experimental work that needs to be examined, but here I’ve focused on providing a brief overview of how the basal ganglia could be implementing action selection. In future posts on the subject, I’ll be looking at other issues addressed by the Redgrave paper series, in particular the role of the short-latency phasic dopamine signal in the basal ganglia. My goal is to work through these papers and then present an incorporation of this work into a larger model of the motor control system.


[Ashby 2007] – A neurobiological theory of automaticity in perceptual categorization
[Gurney 2001] – A computational model of action selection in the basal ganglia. I. A new functional anatomy
[Joel 1994] – The organization of the basal ganglia-thalamocortical circuits: open interconnected rather than closed segregated
[Koechlin 1996] – Dual Population Coding in the Neocortex: A Model of Interaction between Representation and Attention in the Visual Cortex
[Redgrave 1999] – The Basal Ganglia: A Vertebrate Solution To The Selection Problem?
[Redgrave 2011] – Functional properties of the basal ganglia’s re-entrant loop architecture: selection and reinforcement
[Stewart 2008] – Building production systems with realistic spiking neurons
[Stewart 2010] – Dynamic Behaviour of a Spiking Model of Action Selection in the Basal Ganglia
[Turner 2005] – Sequential Motor Behavior and the Basal Ganglia: Evidence from a serial reaction time task in monkeys
[Voorn 2004] – Putting a spin on the dorsal–ventral divide of the striatum
Redgrave P, Prescott TJ, & Gurney K (1999). The basal ganglia: a vertebrate solution to the selection problem? Neuroscience, 89 (4), 1009-23 PMID: 10362291

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