Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Controlling an inappropriate response tendency in the face of a reward-predicting stimulus likely depends on the strength of the reward-driven activation, the strength of a putative top–down control process, and their relative timing. We developed a rewarded go/no-go paradigm to investigate such dynamics. Participants made rapid responses (on go trials) to high versus low reward-predicting stimuli and sometimes had to withhold responding (on no-go trials) in the face of the same stimuli. Behaviorally, for high versus low reward stimuli, responses were faster on go trials, and there were more errors of commission on no-go trials. We used single-pulse TMS to map out the corticospinal excitability dynamics, especially on no-go trials where control is needed. For successful no-go trials, there was an early rise in motor activation that was then sharply reduced beneath baseline. This activation–reduction pattern was more pronounced for high- versus low-reward trials and in individuals with greater motivational drive for reward. A follow-on experiment showed that, when participants were fatigued by an effortful task, they made more errors on no-go trials for high versus low reward stimuli. Together, these studies show that, when a response is inappropriate, reward-predicting stimuli induce early motor activation, followed by a top–down effortful control process (which we interpret as response suppression) that depends on the strength of the preceding activation. Our findings provide novel information about the activation–suppression dynamics during control over reward-driven actions, and they illustrate how fatigue or depletion leads to control failures in the face of reward.