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Methylphenidate and brain activity in a reward/conflict paradigm: Role of the insula in task performance

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Psychostimulants, such as methylphenidate, are thought to improve information processing in motivation-reward and attention-activation networks by enhancing the effects of more relevant signals and suppressing those of less relevant ones; however the nature of such reciprocal influences remains poorly understood. To explore this question, we tested the effect of methylphenidate on performance and associated brain activity in the Anticipation, Conflict, Reward (ACR) task. Sixteen healthy adult volunteers, ages 21-45, were scanned twice using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) as they performed the ACR task under placebo and methylphenidate conditions. A three-way repeated measures analysis of variance, with cue (reward vs. non-reward), target (congruent vs. incongruent) and medication condition (methylphenidate vs. placebo) as the factors, was used to analyze behaviors on the task. Blood oxygen level dependent (BOLD) signals, reflecting task-related neural activity, were evaluated using linear contrasts. Participants exhibited significantly greater accuracy in the methylphenidate condition than the placebo condition. Compared with placebo, the methylphenidate condition also was associated with lesser task-related activity in components of attention-activation systems irrespective of the reward cue, and less task-related activity in components of the reward-motivation system, particularly the insula, during reward trials irrespective of target difficulty. These results suggest that methylphenidate enhances task performance by improving efficiency of information processing in both reward-motivation and in attention-activation systems.

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