Rationale: Drug addiction has been suggested to develop through drug-induced changes in learning and memory processes. Whilst the initiation of drug use is typically goal-directed and hedonically motivated, over time, drug-taking may develop into a stimulus-driven habit, characterised by persistent use of the drug irrespective of the consequences. Converging lines of evidence suggest that stimulant drugs facilitate the transition of goal-directed into habitual drug-taking, but their contribution to goal-directed learning is less clear. Computational modelling may provide an elegant means for elucidating changes during instrumental learning that may explain enhanced habit formation.
Objectives: We used formal reinforcement learning algorithms to deconstruct the process of appetitive instrumental learning and to explore potential associations between goal-directed and habitual actions in patients with cocaine use disorder (CUD).
Methods: We re-analysed appetitive instrumental learning data in 55 healthy control volunteers and 70 CUD patients by applying a reinforcement learning model within a hierarchical Bayesian framework. We used a regression model to determine the influence of learning parameters and variations in brain structure on subsequent habit formation.
Results: Poor instrumental learning performance in CUD patients was largely determined by difficulties with learning from feedback, as reflected by a significantly reduced learning rate. Subsequent formation of habitual response patterns was partly explained by group status and individual variation in reinforcement sensitivity. White matter integrity within goal-directed networks was only associated with performance parameters in controls but not in CUD patients.
Conclusions: Our data indicate that impairments in reinforcement learning are insufficient to account for enhanced habitual responding in CUD.