Drug dominated dopamine circuits spiral addicts into a cognitive behavioral conflict.
Despite explicitly wanting to quit, long-term addicts find themselves powerless to resist drugs, despite knowing that drug-taking may be a harmful course of action. Such inconsistency between the explicit knowledge of negative consequences and the compulsive behavioral patterns represents a cognitive/behavioral conflict that is a central characteristic of addiction. Neurobiologically, differential cue-induced activity in distinct striatal subregions, as well as the dopamine connectivity spiraling from ventral striatal regions to the dorsal regions, play critical roles in compulsive drug seeking. However, the functional mechanism that integrates these neuropharmacological observations with the above-mentioned cognitive/behavioral conflict is unknown. Here we provide a formal computational explanation for the drug-induced cognitive inconsistency that is apparent in the addicts' “self-described mistake”. We show that addictive drugs gradually produce a motivational bias toward drug-seeking at low-level habitual decision processes, despite the low abstract cognitive valuation of this behavior. This pathology emerges within the hierarchical reinforcement learning framework when chronic exposure to the drug pharmacologically produces pathologicaly persistent phasic dopamine signals. Thereby the drug hijacks the dopaminergic spirals that cascade the reinforcement signals down the ventro-dorsal cortico-striatal hierarchy. Neurobiologically, our theory accounts for rapid development of drug cue-elicited dopamine efflux in the ventral striatum and a delayed response in the dorsal striatum. Our theory also shows how this response pattern depends critically on the dopamine spiraling circuitry. Behaviorally, our framework explains gradual insensitivity of drug-seeking to drug-associated punishments, the blocking phenomenon for drug outcomes, and the persistent preference for drugs over natural rewards by addicts. The model suggests testable predictions and beyond that, sets the stage for a view of addiction as a pathology of hierarchical decision-making processes. This view is complementary to the traditional interpretation of addiction as interaction between habitual and goal-directed decision systems.