Mental and physical efforts, such as paying attention and lifting weights, have been shown to involve different brain systems. These cognitive and motor systems, respectively, include cortical networks (prefronto-parietal and precentral regions) as well as subregions of the dorsal basal ganglia (caudate and putamen). Both systems appeared sensitive to incentive motivation: their activity increases when we work for higher rewards. Another brain system, including the ventral prefrontal cortex and the ventral basal ganglia, has been implicated in encoding expected rewards. How this motivational system drives the cognitive and motor systems remains poorly understood. More specifically, it is unclear whether cognitive and motor systems can be driven by a common motivational center or if they are driven by distinct, dedicated motivational modules. To address this issue, we used functional MRI to scan healthy participants while performing a task in which incentive motivation, cognitive, and motor demands were varied independently. We reasoned that a common motivational node should (1) represent the reward expected from effort exertion, (2) correlate with the performance attained, and (3) switch effective connectivity between cognitive and motor regions depending on task demand.
Liljeholm and O'Doherty also offer context and perspective on this work.