Food preferences are acquired through experience and can exert strong influence on choice behavior. In order to choose which food to consume, it is necessary to maintain a predictive representation of the subjective value of the associated food stimulus. Here, we explore the neural mechanisms by which such predictive representations are learned through classical conditioning. Human subjects were scanned using fMRI while learning associations between arbitrary visual stimuli and subsequent delivery of one of five different food flavors. Using a temporal difference algorithm to model learning, we found predictive responses in the ventral midbrain and a part of ventral striatum (ventral putamen) that were related directly to subjects' actual behavioral preferences. These brain structures demonstrated divergent response profiles, with the ventral midbrain showing a linear response profile with preference, and the ventral striatum a bivalent response. These results provide insight into the neural mechanisms underlying human preference behavior.
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