Specific effect of a dopamine partial agonist on counterfactual learning: evidence from Gilles de la Tourette syndrome.

12 Apr 2018

The dopamine partial agonist aripiprazole is increasingly used to treat pathologies for which other antipsychotics are indicated because it displays fewer side effects, such as sedation and depression-like symptoms, than other dopamine receptor antagonists. Previously, we showed that aripiprazole may protect motivational function by preserving reinforcement-related signals used to sustain reward-maximization. However, the effect of aripiprazole on more cognitive facets of human reinforcement learning, such as learning from the forgone outcomes of alternative courses of action (i.e., counterfactual learning), is unknown. To test the influence of aripiprazole on counterfactual learning, we administered a reinforcement learning task that involves both direct learning from obtained outcomes and indirect learning from forgone outcomes to two groups of Gilles de la Tourette (GTS) patients, one consisting of patients who were completely unmedicated and the other consisting of patients who were receiving aripiprazole monotherapy, and to healthy subjects. We found that whereas learning performance improved in the presence of counterfactual feedback in both healthy controls and unmedicated GTS patients, this was not the case in aripiprazole-medicated GTS patients. Our results suggest that whereas aripiprazole preserves direct learning of action-outcome associations, it may impair more complex inferential processes, such as counterfactual learning from forgone outcomes, in GTS patients treated with this medication.